The politics of regionalisation

Following on the heels of a declaration demanding the “unconditional withdrawal” of the Gendermarie from southern Serbia, ethnic Albanian politicians have called for the establishment of a separate ‘Presevo Valley region’.

By Ian Bancroft

Ethnic Albanian representatives from the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac have issued a declaration calling for the establishment of a separate “Presevo Valley region”, replete with regional institutions. The declaration, described as being “in the spirit of the political platform of January 2006” concerning the right to self-determination for ethnic Albanians in the region, also seeks proportional representation for ethnic Albanians in state structures, public institutions and “especially in local and border police”. Such demands for greater autonomy have served to accentuate the tensions and anxieties revolving around the decentralisation and regionalisation agenda in Serbia, particularly in light of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

In the wake of a spate of destabilising events in previous months, the fifty-nine members of the Albanian Councillor’s Assembly (composed of councillors from the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac), have requested immediate talks with the Serbian government and the “legitimate Albanian institutions and political representatives of the three municipalities, with international mediation, in order to accelerate the political process renewed in March this year, in line with the most progressive regional and European standards”. Riza Halimi, Serbia’s sole ethnic Albanian MP and leader of the Party of Democratic Action (PDD), insisted that the move was motivated by the “irresponsible approach of the Serbian government towards the problems and demands of Albanians in the south of Serbia”, particularly with respect to the issue of their national, cultural and religious identity.

Milan Markovic, Serbia’s Minister of Public Administration and Local Self Government and president of the Co-ordination Body, however, described the request as being both “unrealistic” and “politically motivated”, adding that it “will not solve any problems” and that “regionalisation cannot and should not be based on ethnicity…since it would not be in accordance with European standards…[for] when we speak about regionalisation, we think of economic development”. According to the Law on Regional Development, which is expected to be adopted by the Serbian parliament towards the end of the year, the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac will be incorporated into a new southern region.

Often referred to locally as “East Kosovo”, councillors from the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja have previously adopted a joint platform which included a commitment to “unify the Presevo Valley with Kosovo in case of…possible change of [Kosovo’s] borders”. The region, as such, is therefore inextricably linked to developments in Kosovo, ensuring that the hardening of Kosovo’s de facto partition will continue to have serious ramifications for stability in southern Serbia. Though the rhetoric of Jonuz Musliu, the President of the Municipal Assembly of Bujanovac and a former guerrilla leader, has softened recently as Kosovo seeks to consolidate recognition of its declaration of independence, Musliu has vowed that further demands for greater autonomy and fulfilment of the joint platform would undoubtedly accompany any overtures about partitioning Kosovo.

The declaration by ethnic Albanian municipal representatives calling for the establishment of a separate Presevo Valley region demonstrates the inter-ethnic tensions that continue to revolve around the twin questions of decentralisation and minority rights in Serbia. Such tensions – further inflamed by the perceived discrimination of and distance from state institutions, antagonised by an incessantly abject economic environment and further complicated by Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence – will continue to impact debates on Serbia’s regionalisation and territorial re-organization. How Serbia contends with these challenges will therefore have important implications not only for relations with ethnic Albanians in the south, but for the country’s path to Europe; to a Union that fosters and values both subsidiarity and devolution.

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