Putin heroi dels serbis de Kosovo

Kosovo Serbs Put their Hopes in Russia - and Putin

19 10 2007  Amidst signs of an emerging Putin personality cult among Kosovo Serbs, many locals doubt how far Russia would go to give them support.

By Igor Milic in Northern Mitrovica

At first sight Sumadija Square in the heart of the northern, Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica is nothing more than a large intersection which is usually packed with people, parked cars and street vendors.

But the square is also home to the town's stage with a speaker's platform.
 This is the place where all political gatherings and protests in this divided city in the north of Kosovo take place.
The stage is decorated with an Serbian-language banner in big blue and red letters that reads "Russia, help!" and another two in English and Serbian respectively: "Do not make our holy land a present to Albanians" and "Long live Serbia."
It is not unusual to see slogans and posters like these in many other places in northern Mitrovica, the smaller, predominantly Serb-inhabited part of the divided city. Large stickers with pictures of Russian president Vladimir Putin are prominently displayed on many walls.
Many from the northern part of the town - which in Serbian is called Kosovska Mitrovica - say it is just a normal expression of a common belief that Putin has played a pivotal role in determining Russia's policy on Kosovo.
"This is about expressing our hope and gratitude for his support," says Bojan Radenkovic, a young local man.
Putin's popularity has shot up in northern Mitrovica, after earlier this year Russia, Serbia's ally, torpedoed a UN resolution that envisaged internationally-monitored independence for Kosovo, Serbia's UN-administered province.
"I hope Putin and Russia will help us and won't leave us in the lurch," Radenkovic says, adding that the outcome of a new phase of talks on Kosovo's future, currently being held under the auspices of the EU, Russia and the US, now depends on the Kremlin.
The talks are focused on reaching a compromise over Kosovo's long-term status. Ethnic Albanian authorities in Pristina want independence for the province while the Serbian government is offering them broad autonomy.
The US and its allies are advocating Kosovo's independence.  Russia however, wants a compromise that is acceptable to both Pristina and Belgrade. The Kremlin has also warned that any unilateral recognition of Kosovo's independence could have an impact on breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Many Kosovo Serbs believe Putin and Russia will protect them. However, they remain divided over Russia's readiness for military engagement in Kosovo, if the dispute turns violent.  "If this were the case, a wider conflict and a new global division would ensue," Radenkovic says.
In 1999, after NATO bombing ousted Serbian troops from Kosovo, a Russian contingent was unexpectedly rushed to Kosovo from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina where it had been serving as part of the peacekeeping force.
It was deployed at Pristina airport, nearly entering a firefight with NATO troops that were advancing, on schedule, from neighbouring Macedonia.
Russian troops were subsequently included in the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping contingent but were withdrawn from the province in 2003, when Moscow pleaded that it could not afford the cost of their upkeep.
Meanwhile Russia, boosted by massive oil and gas revenues, has been seeking to restore its position on the international stage as a great power.  Its recently-adopted tougher position over Kosovo has convinced many Serbs in the province that the Kremlin will protect them.
More than 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians have fled the province since 1999 in fear of reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists.
They have left behind a Serbian minority of about 100,000, half of them in Mitrovica and the areas to the north, bordering Serbia itself, and the other half dispersed in much smaller communities.  Though concerned about their future, those in the north, are effectively in control of the areas they inhabit.  Serbs living elsewhere – in small pockets among nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians – are much more fearful about their prospects.
"Russian support means the world to us," says Ivan Miletic, 25, a shopkeeper.
"Personally I wouldn't display his (Putin's) picture, but I understand the people doing it," he says.
Russia distanced itself from Serbia under the regime of the late President Slobodan Milosevic. But Miletic believes the situation "is totally different now.  I'd say they would find a way to help us, even militarily," he says, and adds that the unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence by its Albanian-dominated institutions would allow local Serbs to demand more protection.
Others in northern Mitrovica believe that Russia's military backing for Kosovo Serbs is a highly unlikely option.
"We have strong Russian backing at the moment, but we don't know how long it will last," says Dragan Stojkovic, 42.
Stojkovic argues that despite Russia's apparently firm position over the Kosovo issue, the Kremlin's previous involvements in the Balkans were "not always favourable for the Serbs. Russia is not now what it was like about ten years ago," he claims.
Relations between Belgrade and Moscow soured in 1991 following Milosevic's support for the botched coup staged by pro-communist generals against the then reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In the 1990s Boris Yeltsin's administration that succeeded Gorbachev repeatedly made it clear the former Yugoslavia was not at the top of its agenda. Russia did participate in efforts aimed at ending the bloody conflicts in the old Yugoslavia of six republics, but it relegated the leading role to the US.
Sasa Radenkovic, 33, remains sceptical about Russia's support. "I don't believe in it very much. Russia didn't back us all that much" during wars in former Yugoslavia, he says.
However, it appears that there is something of a Putin personality cult in the making among Kosovo Serbs.  "Putin is a strong figure, and he boosted Russia's position in the world," Radenkovic says.
There is also the physical appearance of Russia's leader that makes him appealing to many Kosovo Serbs.
Unlike most of his septuagenarian predecessors plagued by disease and too much vodka, Putin's love of the outdoors, martial arts and his professional background as an intelligence officer "make him look like a real man of power, almost a movie star," said Nikola Markovic of the town of Leposavic.
"A man who likes a workout, flies fighter jets, wrestles with his best soldiers, who hunts and goes fishing is clearly someone capable of real action," Markovic said.
His fiancé Zorica said that "Putin is cute." "He's a good looking guy in every respect. And I love his dog", she said referring to Putin's Labrador retriever Connie.
"A man who ran the KGB for so many years cannot be stupid. He knows what he's doing. He will outsmart them all", said Milan from the town of Zvecan, just outside northern Mitrovica.
There are differing views among Kosovo Serb political representatives on the extent of Russia's support for the Serbs, but everyone agrees that what Russia and Putin have to say, will certainly matter in the future.
For Petar Miletic of the moderate Independent Liberal Party, what matters is that Russia plays an important role in the process of seeking a solution for Kosovo. "Russia's consent is necessary, if any resolution of the Kosovo issue is to go through the Security Council," he said.
Miletic also says that Russia's future military presence in Kosovo would require an agreement with the EU, the US and NATO.  As for the rise in the popularity of Russia and its outgoing president, that was something to be expected, Miletic believes.  "People respond positively to the firm views expressed by Putin, as well as to his image of an uncompromising politician."
Nebojsa Jovic, the head of the nationalist Serb National Council for Mitrovica, says that the "position of Russia and its president on the issue [of Kosovo] is constructive and in keeping with international law, hence his popularity among Kosovo Serbs."
"There's a clear desire on his part to prevent the Kosovo problem from becoming a much bigger regional, even European, problem," Jovic concludes.
Given Putin's role, many Serbs in Mitrovica are hoping that the Russian leader will find a way to stay in power when he steps down from the presidency after his second and final term has come to an end in March next year.  Putin has indicated that he may want to take the post of prime minister.  If they could vote for him, many of his supporters in Kosovo's Serb community would do so wholeheartedly.
Igor Milic is a freelance reporter in Northern Mitrovica. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.