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Kosovo Before UDI

2 articles by The New York Times, February 16, 2008

“We see Kosovo as a precedent that attracts attention to our problem,” she said. “It is a very serious problem of the unrecognized state, to which the big powers and major international organizations have a biased approach.”

As Kosovo Rebuilds, UN Hurries to Return Property

by Dan Bilefsky

The family of Valon Nuhiu, 9, had been squatting in a house belonging to Serbs who fled in 1999. They were evicted this month.

GJILAN, Kosovo - The 9-year-old ethnic Albanian boy screamed until he was red in the face, pounding his fists on the door of a small concrete house that only minutes before he had called home.

“This is my house! Let me in!” he cried, before collapsing outside the front door, freshly sealed with yellow police tape.

The swift eviction of the boy’s family was the work of Toncho Zourlev, a k a the Enforcer, a no-nonsense Bulgarian who leads an eviction squad set up by the United Nations in Kosovo in 2006 to restore properties to their legal owners. To him, the family was simply squatting illegally in a Serbian house.

As a locksmith changed the lock on the front door, the family hastily wrapped belongings and carried them to the street: a rusty cabinet, a teddy bear, six pairs of shoes, a kitchen table and chairs. The women and children huddled in the rain. A tea kettle, still warm, sat steaming on the stove inside.

“We have nowhere to go. We have no money. What will we do?” pleaded Qamile Nuhiu, 42. The boy, Valon, is one of her five children.

Her husband, she said, was unemployed. The family has been living in abandoned Serbian homes in this poor agricultural town about 35 miles southeast of Pristina since the aftermath of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. They came to Gjilan from their hometown, Presovo, in another part of Serbia, where Serbs had clashed with ethnic Albanians after the NATO bombing.

With Kosovo poised to declare independence from Serbia in the culmination of a long and violent struggle over who controls and owns this land, the property restitution effort has taken on added importance.

Many inhabitants on either side of the ethnic divide in Kosovo — now about 95 percent Albanian in what was the heartland of Serbia’s medieval empire — can tell tales of property theft and other misdeeds stretching back decades, if not centuries.

The United Nations is trying to right the most recent of those wrongs, committed during the civil war in 1998 and 1999, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians and Serbs fled their homes in this poor, landlocked territory, only to seize a house belonging to somebody else.

The attempt to reverse these misdeeds underlines the challenge facing conflict zones around the world, where ensuring the right of returning minorities to take possession of their homes is deemed essential to reconstruction in multiethnic countries like Rwanda and Iraq.

In the case of Kosovo, fewer than 18,000 of the 250,000 Serbs, Roma and others displaced since 1999 have returned, according to Human Rights Watch, which cites the inability of refugees to return home as a major obstacle.

As the Nuhiu family scrambled to assemble its worldly possessions, Sami Miftari, 31, an ethnic Albanian neighbor freshly evicted from the house next door, put forward another view: that in Kosovo, where government sources put unemployment at 60 percent and monthly earnings average about $240, squatting can be the only way to survive.

“Kicking us out is not justice,” he said. “It is revenge.”

Mr. Zourlev insisted that he was simply restoring law and order to a territory riven by bloody disputes over land.

“Putting families onto the street is not fun,” he said. “But if Kosovo wants to be an independent country, people have to learn to respect the law. Otherwise, this place will continue to be the Wild West.”

Since 2001, the Kosovo Property Agency and its predecessor, the United Nations Housing and Property Directorate, have fielded 29,000 residential property claims, about 90 percent of them filed by Serbs whose homes are being illegally occupied by ethnic Albanians.

Of those, 17,500 properties have been restored to their rightful owners, said Lars Olsen, a Norwegian and spokesman for the property agency. He said 2,500 cases had been dismissed.

The property agency, whose mandate will continue under European Union auspices, expects to settle 40,000 more cases by 2010.

Mr. Zourlev, who sets out on evictions accompanied by a locksmith, several movers, a translator and local police officers, notes that the operations can be fraught with danger, including resistance by illegal tenants hoarding AK-47s and shotguns. Things can get especially tense, he said, when the evictees are former soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the separatist guerrilla group that fought the Serbs.

He recalls that during a recent eviction in Obilic, a poor industrial area outside Pristina, a former K.L.A. fighter summoned his friends. Before long, the eviction team found itself surrounded. Mr. Zourlev said a policeman wedged himself in front of the apartment door until reinforcements came.

United Nations officials say the property settlement system offers a model for other regions recovering from conflict because the justice is fair and swift. While in most countries property and land disputes are usually settled in local courts — a process that can drag on for years — for Kosovo the United Nations has set up a special commission of judges to rule on the claims.

After a claim has been made, a team of investigators at the property agency’s headquarters in Pristina, made up of both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, conducts interviews, scours property registries and verifies contracts to determine legal ownership.

Once a ruling has been made, the illegal occupants are given 30 days to leave. If the owner does not wish to live there, the agency puts the property under its administration and collects rent on the owner’s behalf.

Sejdi Haxholli, an ethnic Albanian police officer overseeing evictions, said it was emotionally wrenching to help evict his own people.

“This is the hard part of the job — I know these people, and everyone knows me,” he said. “Now I have to kick them out, women and children.”

Not everyone believes justice is being done. Suezana Borzanovic, 50, a Serbian factory worker, fled Pristina during the bombing raids in 1999 and returned three years later to discover that an ethnic Albanian taxi driver had illegally occupied her apartment and was renting it out.

She filed a claim with the property agency in April 2002, which reinstated her ownership of the apartment eight months later. She said that when she finally returned, the furniture and windows had been broken.

Today, she said, she is the only Serb living among ethnic Albanian families in what was once a Serb-dominated building. She said she would never recognize an independent Kosovo.

“I don’t believe justice was done because I lost out on two years’ worth of rent,” she said.

She added: “I say hello and goodbye to my Albanian neighbors. I have not had any problems. But if they brought me a cake, I would refuse. You never know, it could be poisoned.”

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Russia Warns It May Back Breakaway Republics in Georgia

by C.J. Chivers

Russia held a high-level meeting with the leaders of two breakaway republics in Georgia on Friday, and vowed to increase its support for the separatists if Kosovo declared its independence and was recognized by the West.

The meeting, coupled with vocal warnings in Russia’s Parliament that it would react strongly to a declaration of independence by Kosovo, threatened to push the Kremlin and the West into a fresh and potentially volatile standoff over the status of separatist territories in Georgia.

Kosovo is expected within days to declare its independence from Serbia, Russia’s traditional ally.

The Kremlin has long objected to the move, and even threatened to retaliate by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions it supports inside Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, as independent states.

Russia has in the past several years granted Russian citizenship to almost all residents in the separatist enclaves. In anticipation of further engagement with the regions, Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, met here with the presidents of the regions’ de facto governments.

Mr. Lavrov then issued a stern but vague statement saying Russia was prepared to expand its case diplomatically in the days ahead. “The declaration and recognition of Kosovar independence will make Russia adjust its line toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he said in a statement.

Increasing financial assistance is among the steps Russia might take, he said.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia border Russia along the Caucasus ridge, and broke from Georgia after brief wars in the early 1990s. Their status has simmered as a source of contention and ethnic tension in the years since.

Both regions have declared self-rule, but in fact are managed as Russian protectorates. The standoffs, labeled “frozen conflicts,” have been sources of unsuccessful international mediation and worries of renewed fighting.

Georgia in recent years has strongly protested the Russian support, accusing the Kremlin of hypocrisy.

It has noted that Russia has supported separatists inside Georgia while holding Russia’s own sovereignty inviolable and waging a bitter war and counterinsurgency against separatists on the other side of the Caucasus ridge, in Chechnya.

The military, diplomatic and public relations campaigns in the region have all the while been layered with intrigue.

One of the most prominent fighters in the Abkhaz war against Georgia, for example, was Shamil Basayev, the Chechen separatist and terrorist who became Russia’s most wanted man.

Georgian officials have said that Mr. Basayev’s career as a terrorist began as a proxy in Abkhazia for Russia’s secret services, and that his presence in the war was a mark of Kremlin sponsorship and duplicity. Mr. Basayev, the eventual architect of the worst acts of terrorism in post-Soviet Russia, died in 2006.

Since President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia rose to power in 2003 and vowed to unify the country, there have been occasional skirmishes and mortar and rocket barrages along the borders between the de facto regions and areas under federal control.

The latest meeting between Mr. Lavrov and Eduard Kokoity, the president of South Ossetia, and Sergei Bagapsh, the Abkhaz president, ended without a concrete plan for all of the steps ahead, Irina Y. Gagloyeva, a spokeswoman for the Ossetian government, said by telephone.

But she said that Mr. Lavrov pledged Russia’s strong support, and the three sides did agree that any questions of the regions’ own statehood would be raised incrementally if Kosovo was recognized by the West.

The first step, Ms. Gagloyeva said, would be to press Georgia to engage in negotiations at the presidential level to lead to a step-by-step settlement of the lingering disputes.

“We see Kosovo as a precedent that attracts attention to our problem,” she said. “It is a very serious problem of the unrecognized state, to which the big powers and major international organizations have a biased approach.”

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Today's Guardian, UK article: 'Are We a Society of Values or of Blood?': Old Questions Hang Over New Kosovo

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