Unprepared for Challenges Ahead

The authorities in Belgrade entered the new calendar year in the same state of mental disarray and logical confusion they’ve displayed since ascending to power in 2000. That PM Kostunica and President Tadic would continue to say opposing things has by now become accepted as normal, but so has the even more pronounced dissent between Kostunica and his coalition partner Vuk Draskovic, now a foreign minister for the undead union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Feuding between these officials continues to prevent any sort of coherent foreign policy from emerging. The union is further hampered by the persistent obstructionism by Montenegro, whose separatist authorities – unable to win an independence referendum they keep threatening to organize – seem determined to provoke Serbia into dissolving the current arrangement.

Meanwhile, the government in Belgrade continues to take steps to harm its citizens, implementing a new system of taxation starting Jan. 1 that has already caused cascading disruptions in Serbia’s already fragile economy and even threatened the precarious existence of Serbs in Kosovo.

Without a doubt, circumstances in that occupied southern province continue to deteriorate, and 2005 carries the prospect of escalated conflict as ethnic Albanians persist in their territorial claims.

A Value-Destroying Tax

Serbian authorities dealt another blow to the already struggling economy on Jan. 1, when the new value-added tax (VAT), brainchild of Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic, replaced the old sales tax. The old system of charging a 20 percent tax on selected final products gave way to an 18 percent tax on all products at all stages of production, though the government promised to refund taxes collected on resale items within six months. Since the essence of entrepreneurship is adding value to resources, this tax will inevitably have a deleterious effect on the economy in general, and consumer prices in particular.

The VAT has also had the side effect of imposing a tariff on Kosovo Serbs. UNMIK already charges a VAT in Kosovo; now Serbia has started charging a fee for foods "exported" to the occupied province. As a result, Serb-inhabited areas in the north are already experiencing food shortages.

Perhaps the de facto blockade of Kosovo Serbs was an unplanned side-effect of the VAT; if so, that’d still be criminal negligence, considering the situation. But according to Dinkic’s media statements, the government deliberately chose to tariff the goods entering Kosovo, to "end tax evasion." Dinkic and his statist ilk obviously consider plundering their citizens more important than ensuring their continued existence.

In the Dark

In addition to the VAT blockade, some 4,000 Serbs in one of the areas of Kosovo targeted by the March pogrom greeted 2005 without electricity. What at first was termed a "transmission malfunction" turned into an attempt to extort allegedly overdue utility bills from the helpless Serbs. Even after a Serbian corporation made a substantial payment, problems with electricity supply persisted.

One Serbian official close to President Tadic finally asked UNMIK why the KEK was allowed to cut Serb villages off for supposedly owing money, when 70 percent of the residents of Kosovo – which, as Westerners are fond of mentioning, is by now over 90 percent Albanian – fail to pay their power bills, yet face no cuts. Furthermore, the KEK has a debt to the Serbian utility, EPS, several times greater than the amount it demands from the besieged Serbs.

Though some electricity was restored just before the New Year, many Serbs were in the dark as late as the Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7). According to most recent reports, KEK has selectively disconnected Serb households within the mixed town of Lipljan, which remained powerless as late as Jan. 11.

Given the obviously selective nature of power cuts, and the continued blackout even after the Serbian utility performed extensive maintenance and paid down a substantial portion of the claimed debt, the obvious conclusion is that the Albanian authorities are using KEK to harass the remaining Serbs. This is a new, more subtle tactic than the murder, arson, and overt intimidation of the past five years, and the fact that UNMIK hasn’t done a thing to stop it does not augur well for the future of Serbs in the occupied province.

Will He, Won’t He?

Of course, the pro-Albanian International Crisis Group claimed KEK power cuts affected Albanians as well and that "provocations" from Belgrade were really responsible for the increased tensions. ICG also cautioned that a war crimes indictment against Kosovo’s "prime minister" Ramush Haradinaj could lead to renewed Albanian riots and should therefore be avoided.

This has been a constant refrain of Haradinaj’s supporters in the West ever since the first rumors that he might be indicted by the Hague Inquisition. His guilt or innocence never entered the picture. Similar arguments by Belgrade – that extraditing Army officers indicted simply for doing their duty in resisting NATO aggression would cause political instability – are routinely dismissed by the mainstream media; indeed, their surrender is constantly demanded as the prerequisite for any further "cooperation" with the Empire.

As of this time, there is no official confirmation Haradinaj has been – or would be – indicted, despite the mounting rumors to that effect. But as the time runs out for the ICTY to submit new indictments, it may be only a matter of days before we find out.

Presevo: Searching for Pretexts

Albanians in southern Serbia abutting Kosovo renewed their demands for separation this weekend, using as a pretext the death of a teen shot by Serbian border patrols while attempting an illegal crossing from Macedonia.

The military was fully within its rights to shoot, and the boy was clearly at fault. Nonetheless, the local Albanians insist that the incident is grounds for inviting a foreign military presence into the region. Some groups in Serbia advocate "appeasing" them in order to avoid the internationalization of the issue – which, they assume, Serbia will lose. This exact premise is shared by the Albanians, who naturally insist on internationalization and are unlikely to be appeased by "minority rights."

No More Board Games

It is not hard to see why the Albanians have the upper hand in the test of wills: they are single-mindedly determined to carve out an independent state devoid of non-Albanian presence; the Serbs are divided, conflicted, confused, and disheartened by the perception that Albanian claims are backed by Imperial force (which does appear to be the case). But the truth remains that Kosovo is still Serb to lose, and there is absolutely no reason why anyone in Serbia should willingly acquiesce to the occupation and illegal separation thereof.

There is no doubt that 2005 will be a dark and difficult year. But if Belgrade wants it to be different than 2004, its leaders must understand the stakes involved and stop wasting time on diplomatic board games. Serbia needs statesmen, not players.

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Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.