Thursday, February 07, 2008

Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije says Serbia will not acquiesce

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

By Elizabeth Sullivan,
Plain Dealer Columnist

Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije's deep cynicism is unsurprising. The seatof his Kosovo diocese is about to be spun off as part of a new country, without his or his flock of 130,000 resident Serbs having much to say about it.

What is surprising is how little of his previously expressed moderation and ecumenism remains.

At one time, the diminutive 73-year-old prelate with the flowing white beard used to talk readily about his contacts with ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. He spent years pressing for a local, negotiated solution to the future of the Serb province.

But in an interview ahead of a lobbying visit to Washington this week to plead the case of Kosovo's Serbs, Bishop Artemije said he definitively cut ties to all Kosovo Albanian officials five years ago after an anti-Serb pogrom. He said that was because none of them moved to stop the March 2004 attacks throughout Kosovo that left more than a dozen Serbs dead and at least 36 churches in ruins, or to catch and punish the chief perpetrators.

Now he expects the Albanian response to Kosovo independence to be a final expulsion of all Serbs, he said Saturday at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma. "That is why the people are so scared."

In 1999, Artemije took a different approach.

Opposed to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and trying to head off war with the West, he tried to offer a plan for devolution of power to Albanians in Kosovo. Yet his delegation was barred at the door of the Rambouillet conference in France convened by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Instead, a Kosovo Albanian delegation "negotiated" an outcome guaranteed to inflame Serb opinion and bring on war. And since that 78-day NATO air war - ending with a U.N. Security Council resolution that recognized Belgrade's continued sovereignty - NATO peacekeepers have had to act as part border patrol, part anti-organized crime squad and part security guards for remaining Serbs.

NATO troops understandably want out. Yet, ironically, the solution being offered smacks of the same one-sided approach that set the stage for the 1999 war.

Sometime over the next few weeks, Kosovo will declare itself to be independent of Serbia. The United States and most European countries will then clap it on the back and congratulate it with recognition.

Yet this will all happen without the benefit of Serbia's agreement or indeed without any definitive negotiations or written guarantees between majority Albanians who effectively run the province, and the minority Serbs holding on in isolated enclaves such as the one where Artemije resides near the Gracanica monastery in Kosovo.

Artemije charged that since NATO took over Kosovo security in June 1999, more than 1,000 Serbs had been killed and another 1,000 kidnapped and never heard from again, while a quarter million Serbs were expelled from the province. Hundreds of abandoned Serbian villages were razed, he said, along with 150 Serbian medieval religious monuments, yet little was ever heard of
these atrocities.

Instead, the international community, he said, was proposing to reward violence with an embrace of the same government under whose auspices the violence happened.

"It's like life . . . in a concentration camp," said Artemije. "We are just living day by day, trying to survive."

These days, far from being seen as a moderate, Artemije is considered one of the more radical voices within Kosovo, urging Serbs to boycott Kosovo elections and rejecting independence out of hand.

He also now looks to Belgrade for a solution, saying that despite hard-fought Serbian elections - narrowly won Sunday by pro-reform incumbent Boris Tadic - politicians were united on Kosovo.

For Serbs, Artemije said, "Kosovo is not simply an issue of real estate. Kosovo is a spiritual concept, a place that shelters in its very essence all the spirit of a nation, the Serbian nation.

"In that, you can be assured that everybody is very much unified, and that they are, by the same token, ready to defend this right - this right of history and this right of sovereignty.

"Those who think that Serbia is going to nag a little bit, and then accept the facts [of unilateral independence] , they're wrong. They're very, very wrong."

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

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