Thursday, Nov. 29, the Serbian government ordered all ministries to prepare plans for “helping the Serb and other non-Albanian populations in Kosovo” should there be a unilateral proclamation of independence.
The order cam a day after talks between Serbia and the southern province's ethnic Albanians on Kosovo’s independence collapsed.
The Serbian armed forces were informed that their government would act in a serious manner should the need arise, said the statement.
As tensions shot up, 90 US National Guardsmen arrived in North Kosovo to support the 2,800 peacekeepers of the NATO-led KFOR.
In the first half of November, Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica issued secret directives to his ministers and chief of staff Lt. Gen Zdravko Ponos, to prepare for “an emergency situation” in early 2008, on the fate and territorial sovereignty of its Kosovo province.
Last week, the Serbian Army sent out recruitment orders for more than 700 soldiers under contract for different posts in the Vranje, Leskovac and Bujanovac garrisons, in the south of the country abutting the separatist province.
According to our military sources, a delegation of Russian intelligence and military officers paid a quiet visit to Belgrade – also last week. They came with advice for the Serbian high command on how to handle another outbreak of hostilities. Some were veterans of the 1998 NATO war against Serbia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Balkan sources list the events bringing the clouds of war back to this part of the world after a respite of almost ten years.
Memories of Milosevic linger over Belgrade
For a start, the deadline of Dec. 10, 2007, set by the United Nations for settling Kosovo’s fate looms large. On that day, the UN Security Council is set to approve the province’s independence of Serbia. Envoy Martti Ahtisaari of Finland has proposed EU-supervised independence as the only viable solution. The difficulty is that Serbia’s patron and ally Russia has the power to veto this resolution.
In that case, the largely-Muslim ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of UN-administered Kosovo’s population of two million, say they will unilaterally declare independence.
The Serb minority of 100,000 lives mostly in the northern part of Kosovo. The province is tiny and population small, but its secession could well re-ignite a fresh round of ethnic war across the Balkans and spark a secessionist epidemic across Europe.
While the Belgrade government is preparing for the worst, Kostunica is carefully avoiding declaring a full state of war, for several reasons.
1. He wants to avoid being accused by the Americans and Europeans of being first to prepare for another Balkan war and make sure Serbia is not blamed for its outcome. Dark memories hang over Belgrade of Slobodan Milosevic, whose actions on Kosovo crossed the red line which brought NATO to the breakaway province a decade ago.
2. According to Serbian and Russian intelligence reports reaching Kostunica’s desk, the next conflict will not be fought by two belligerent armies on a battlefield, but by guerrilla fighters – Kosovar Albanians supplied from Pristina and Tirana and Serb “partisans,” supplied by Belgrade – both formally categorized as “volunteers.”
A secessionist flashpoint across Europe
3. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources estimate that this type of combat could easily spread rapidly from the Serbian-Kosovo border districts to the rest of the Balkans and beyond
The Kosovar fighters would be reinforced by Muslim volunteers streaming in from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Macedonia. There is even the danger of the two million Albanians of northern Greece rising, whether to help their brethren in Kosovo, or strike a separatist blow on their own account. Kosovo could become the flashpoint for a string of secessionist outbreaks across Europe.
Volunteers could be flown in from all parts of Russia to aid Serbia, in the same way as a nationalist Russian brigade fought alongside the Serbian army in 1998. Croatian and Romanian nationalists could join the fray.
Most observers expect the Serbian government and its Russian advisers to respond to a decision on Kosovo’s independence by hostile counter-steps that will inflame the situation, such as laying down a cordon sanitaire in Serbian-controlled northern Kosovo; closing roads to non-Serb traffic and so blocking transit to the NATO-led peacekeeping force; or even cutting off its electrical current.
The designatred Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci, one of the Albanian guerrilla leaders who fought the Serbs in the late 1990s, is unlikely to take this lying down.
In interviews to German newspapers last week, Thaci pledged he would invite members of the Serb minority to join his government. But he refused to hear of any alternative for Kosovo but full independence and predicted that at least 20 governments would recognize the new nation, followed in short order by the European Union.
For the Serbs and Russians, this talk is a casus belli.