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Fight over memorial

Nemanja Rujević / jrbJanuary 23, 2013

Serbian police in the southern town of Presevo have removed a stone monument honoring Albanian insurgents. Political analysts explain what was behind the drastic move.

GettyImages 159757928 Serbian gendarmes secure the area as a bulldozer lifts up to remove the monument of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) in the town of Presevo AFP PHOTO / SASA DJORDJEVIC (Photo credit should read SASA DJORDJEVIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

The rectangular, two-meter-high memorial pays tribute to 27 members of the Albanian Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveda and Bujanovac (UCPMB). The insurgents died in 2000 und 2001 fighting Serbian government forces to free these three communities - mainly inhabited by Albanians - from Serbian rule to join neighboring Kosovo.

Kosovo was a Serbian province under UN administration at the time and in 2008 declared its independence.

Many states worldwide have recognized Kosovo's independence, while Belgrade and the Serbian minority in northern Kosovo continue to regard the country as a renegade Serb province. Several EU states, including Spain and Greece, also do not recognize Kosovo's independence.

Albanians from Presevo erected the memorial last November in defiance of the Serb government. The Albanians regard the insurgents as liberation army heroes - the Serb government has always branded the UCPMB as a "terrorist organization."

Protests in Kosovo

Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic justified the removal of the memorial, saying a monument honoring enemies of the state is inacceptable.  "We showed enough patience," he said. "Our clear and strong message is that the law should be respected and that no one is stronger than the state."

 The Kosovan government condemned the move by Serbian police forces. A statement from Pristina said the Serbian government's decision "endangers talks about normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo."

An elderly Albanian man cleans up the monument of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) in the town of Presevo AFP PHOTO / SASA DJORDJEVIC (Photo credit should read SASA DJORDJEVIC/AFP/Getty Images)
The memorial may be gone but the fight continuesImage: AFP/Getty Images

Several thousand ethnic Albanians took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations in Presevo on Monday this week as well as in Kosovo. Kosovan police and international peace troops managed to stop a group trying to storm a Serb Orthodox church in Dakovica, but other protesters demolished gravestones in Serb Orthodox cemeteries in Kosovo.

The European Commission made it clear the controversial memorial is a domestic Serbian problem. "We regret the two sides did not manage to find a compromise," said Maja Kocijancic, a member of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's cabinet. 

Dragan Bujosevic, editor-in-chief of the Serbian newspaper, Politika, believes that Belgrade had secured international backing before removing the monument. "I'm certain that the Serbian government would never have removed the memorial without approval from the West," Bujosevic told DW.

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic likely sought approval during a visit last week in Brussels where he met for talks with Ashton, US diplomat Phillip Reeker and Kosovan Prime Minster Hashim Thaci.

Hero or terrorist?

Don't expect to find a consensus between Serbs and Albanians as to whether the UCPMB fighters were terrorists or heroes, maintains Dragon Simeunovic with the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Belgrade. What's important, he believes, is that the incident occurred on Serbian territory where Serbian laws prevail.

"Although Albanian extremists from southern Serbia were pardoned, leading Serbian politicians know that the vast majority of Serbian citizens don't accept this amnesty," Simeunovic told DW. The Belgrade government is under pressure internationally to advance talks with Pristina, he added, saying that Belgrade needs a domestic success "to show that Presevo is in Serbia."

The monument in Presevo sparked particularly fierce debate because of its location directly in front of the Presevo city hall. But it isn't the only memorial of its kind - southern Serbia is home to several others that honor the former UCPMB insurgents.

Kosovo Albanians take part in a protest in Pristina on January 16, 2013 after Belgrade announced the removal of ithe memorial. AFP PHOTO/ARMEND NIMANI (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Kosovo Albanians take to the street to protestImage: AFP/Getty Images

"There will be no hunting for these memorials," Simeunovic said, "because this isn't about ideology but about political pragmatism."  The monument in Presevo, he notes, could trigger strong emotions among both Serbs and Albanians. "That's why the politicians have taken action in this case," he added.

Journalist Bujosevic wonders how the Spanish government would react if extremists from Catalonia or the Basque region received a monument. "There isn't much tolerance for such memorials in other countries as well," he said.

Detailed ambitions

Around 120,000 people live in the Presevo region, roughly two-thirds of whom are assumed to be Albanians. "It's known that Albanians from southern Serbia seek a union with Kosovo," said Presevo Mayor Ragmi Mustafa.

But their ambitions were derailed during the 2001 uprising, according to political analyst Simeunovic. "Back then, the international community, particularly the United States, backed the Kosovo Albanians but offered no support to the Albanians in southern Serbia," he said. "That was the decisive factor that made it possible for the Serbian government to fight against the insurgency."

The three communities, which are largely inhabited by Albanians, are among Serbia's poorest regions. Maja Kocijancic believes that improvements in areas such as social policy, minority rights and the economy are more important than monuments.