South Serbia – lessons in conflict prevention and recovery

This article focuses on drawing some conclusions from the South Serbia experience that could be applied more generally to area-based development programming in conflict-affected regions.

By Tom Thorogood

Click here for a chronology of the conflict in South Serbia and its immediate aftermath

The origins and course of the conflict in South Serbia

South Serbia’s Albanian population is concentrated in the municipalities of Presevo and Bujanovac (where Albanians comprise the majority) and Medvedja. Since the early 1990s, ethnic Albanians were under-represented in state administration and enterprises that are the main employers in the region, and were almost completely absent from the police and judiciary. This discrimination exacerbated tensions associated with poverty and unemployment in South Serbia, particularly in rural areas.

Facing abuse and harassment from the Yugoslav security forces and emboldened by the successes of the Kosovo Liberation Army in neighbouring Kosovo, the UCPMB2 Albanian insurgents fought Yugoslav security forces in 2000. The ensuing conflict lasted for some 18 months during 2000-2001 (after the Kosovo conflict, roughly simultaneously with the Albanian insurgency in neighbouring Macedonia), and produced some 100 casualties. Attacks on Yugoslav police and military patrols by small groups of UCPMB fighters, who then took refuge in the ‘ground safety zone’ (GSZ) (an area inside Serbia but barred to Yugolsav forces),3 were common. The signing of the Konculj peace agreement in May 2001 essentially halted the fighting, though isolated incidents of violence continued until the end of 2004.

Lessons from South Serbia

While such conflicts in the Western Balkans are often portrayed as reflecting racial, ethnic, or religious cleavages, they can also result from tensions between an ethnic minority and state institutions. This was the case in South Serbia. In contrast to other parts of the Western Balkans, the conflict in South Serbia did not escalate to the point in which Albanian and Serbian neighbours and communities took up arms against one another. In fact, relationships between local people remained relatively good throughout the conflict.

The South Serbia experience also underscores the importance of the willingness of the 'warring parties' to negotiate with one another, and of a rapid, effective response by the international community. This included:

  • A quick response that yields visible, tangible benefits for some of the main conflict protagonists. By the end of 2001, the UN had established an inter-agency office in South Serbia, and the implementation of the South Serbia Municipal Improvement and Recovery Programme (SSMIRP) and the Rapid Employment Programme (REP) had begun. The REP provided temporary public works employment for some 6,000 former fighters and the long-term unemployed during an 18-month period. The SSMIRP focused on such longer term issues as the expansion of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) needed for conflict resolution, civil society development, sustainable employment creation, and better local governance. This included the establishment of small funds administered by municipalities that delivered grants to NGOs from the region. Another important activity was work on the development of farmers groups and cooperatives.
  • Appropriate UN support. The UNDP-led inter-agency mission to South Serbia in February 2001 prepared the groundwork for future fund raising and gathered the background knowledge needed for initial programme design and implementation. This was followed by the recruitment of a former UN resident coordinator–an experienced, respected individual–as the manager of UNDP’s South Serbia programme, who provided strategic leadership during the programme’s crucial initial phase. Timely financial and technical assistance was also provided by UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery. This support was combined with extensive operational autonomy, allowing the South Serbia programme to flexibly respond to changing circumstances on the ground.
  • Extensive local visibility. The UN’s presence and visibility, especially in some of South Serbia’s more remote rural areas, reassured many local communities, helping to reduce fears and tensions.
  • Impartiality. By working broadly across the region and among all parties to the conflict, instead of just focusing on the municipalities most directly affected by the conflict, the South Serbia programme helped local stakeholders to effectively combine conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery activities. This may well seem obvious; however, it has not often been the case. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo are all examples of places where the development community, at least initially, supported one side in post conflict/conflict situations.
  • Employing and investing in local staff from different ethnic communities. In addition to reinforcing the programme’s impartiality, such personnel policies helped promote local ownership of the South Serbia programme. (Programme offices in post-conflict regions often have many local staff who are not from the region itself, or who have been parachuted in from headquarters).
  • Effective international coordination. The South Serbia programme has benefited from an effective division of labour among the international agencies active in the region. Whereas UNDP has focused on programming in governance, civil society and (to a lesser degree) local economic development, OSCE has taken a leading role on judicial and police reform. Likewise, the monitoring of the security situation has fallen under the mandate of the European Monitoring Mission (EUMM). While areas of overlap have been present (among other things between UNDP- and USAID-funded initiatives), these overlaps were increasingly managed in a coordinated manner. The strong donor support enjoyed by the various UNDP-implemented initiatives in South Serbia have resulted in the delivery of 10.5 million euros through the European Union and $3.5 million through other donors such as the World Bank, UNDP, and the governments of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Sweden during the period 2001 – 2005. The MIR24 programme that began in December 2005 has a portfolio of 10.2 million euros and is supported by a consortium made up of the European Union through the European Agency for Reconstruction, the Swedish government, the Norwegian government, the Austrian government and the Serbian government. There have also been large contributions by local stakeholders in many of the initiatives that by the end of 2005 totalled another $2 million. The coordination among donors has helped ensure funding continuity since 2001, and prevented the appearance of serious funding gaps.
  • From recovery to development. External evaluations have been performed at key points in the programme cycle, helping to identify problems and make necessary adjustments. These evaluations led to the 2003 decision to merge the REP and SSMIRP programmes into the Municipal Improvement and Revival programme which covers all municipalities in South Serbia,5 and is now in its second phase. They also facilitated a gradual shift in the South Serbia programme’s focus towards local governance and local economic development, away from conflict resolution (which nonetheless remains a cross-cutting issue).

Signs of success . . . and remaining challenges

These activities have clearly helped to reduce tensions in South Serbia, thus helping the region to move from recovery to development. Tangible examples of these changes include the establishment of a multi-ethnic police force (2001), the election of an Albanian mayor (2002), the appointment of an Albanian judge (2006) in Bujanovac, and the participation of the Bujanovac, Medvedja, and Presevo municipalities in the establishment of a regional development agency, along with 10 other (non-Albanian) municipalities, in November 2006. The region’s infrastructure has visibly improved since the conflict ended with many of the schools having been rebuilt and refurbished, significant improvement in the roads of the region, development of economic infrastructure such as livestock and green markets in many of the towns in the region and a considerable investment in less visible infrastructure such as sewage and water supply.

However, many of the issues that originally precipitated the conflict have still not been fully addressed. Unemployment remains a particular concern: official data report unemployment rates as high as 40 percent in some parts of South Serbia. Along with the uncertainties surrounding the future of neighbouring Kosovo and internecine conflict amongst Albanian politicians (reflected in a political struggle between the moderates who argue for engagement and continued dialogue with the Belgrade government and the extremists who call for making the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja part of Kosovo), South Serbia’s conflict potential suggests that the involvement of UNDP and other international organizations will be needed for the foreseeable future.

Tom Thorogood was a programme manager for the Municipal Improvement and Revival Programme Phase II in South Serbia.

A chronology of the conflict in South Serbia and its immediate aftermath

  • Mid-2000 – the first armed clashes take place.
  • December 2000 – the Serbian government establishes the Coordination Body for Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (in Bujanovac), to address the security situation in South Serbia.
  • February 2001 – a UNDP-led inter-agency UN mission visits the region.
  • May 2001 – the Yugoslav army begins a phased reoccupation of the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ).
  • May 2001 – the Konculj peace agreement is signed.
  • May 2001 – the Covic plan is launched. (This is a detailed blueprint for the development of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, written by the then Deputy Premier and President of the Coordination Body Nebojsa Covic. The Coordination Body took the lead in coordinating the implementation of the plan.)
  • May 2001 – UNDP establishes an office in the region.
  • August 2001 – the first group of trained multi-ethnic police becomes operational in the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja.
  • August 2002 – an Albanian is elected mayor of Bujanovac (for the first time).
  • February 2006 – an Albanian judge is appointed to the Bujanovac municipal court.
  • November 2006 – the municipalities of Bujanovac, Medvedja, and Presevo participate in the establishment of a regional development agency, along with 10 other (non-Albanian) South Serbian municipalities.