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Commission Hearing Surveys State of Ethnic Relations in Kosovo
Tuesday, August 06, 2002

By Bob Hand,
CSCE Staff Advisor

The Helsinki Commission held a hearing June 19, 2002 on the prospects for ethnic harmony in Kosovo amidst recent reports of ongoing human rights abuses against minority groups.

Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) chaired the hearing. Commissioner Senator George V. Voinovich (R-OH) also participated.

"Vandalizing or bombing churches is not just wrong, it is beneath the dignity of any Albanian who suffered under the Milosevic regime," Smith said, stressing that "revenge is not justice." He condemned the inexcusable acts of repression brought upon Albanians during the former Yugoslav President's rule.

Co-Chairman Smith appealed for cooperation among all parties involved and called for fostering a climate of tolerance. Leaders within Kosovo, within minority communities, and in the Yugoslav Government have a crucial role to play, Smith noted.

Senator Voinovich expressed alarm over the human rights situation in Kosovo. He cited a joint report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on continuing areas of concern.

Quoting from the report, Voinovich said, "I could not agree more with a statement made in that report: ‘Only when Kosovo's minorities feel confident in their long-term future and when all of Kosovo's displaced persons are able to exercise the choice to return to their homes, feeling assured of their safety and confident in their ability to assess institutions and participate in social, economic and political life in Kosovo on a nondiscriminatory basis will it be possible to say that the situation of minorities in Kosovo is successful.'"

Based on his observations during a trip to Kosovo earlier this year, Voinovich underscored the continuing need for U.S. engagement. He concluded that the situation in the divided city of Mitrovica, where ethnically-motivated attacks persist, and along the Kosovo-Macedonian border need to be resolved through cooperation and discussion.

Testifying before the Commission were Dr. Alush Gashi, representing President Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova in the Kosovo Parliament; Rada Trajkovic, leader of the Kosovo Serb "Return" Coalition within the Parliament; Valerie Percival, the Kosovo Field Representative for the International Crisis Group (ICG); and Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia Nebojsa Covic.

Dr. Gashi expressed gratitude for the United States' leadership and promised to work with the international community to ensure that all Kosovars have equal national and human rights. He noted that Serbs currently participate in all levels of government and institutions.

Further integration, however, is hindered by a Serb population that has so far refused to distance itself from Belgrade's brutal assault on Kosovar Albanians, which included numerous atrocities and 650 mass graves not yet exhumed.

"The reality is that Kosovar-Albanians cannot get from Belgrade even the dead bodies of their members of families, and at this same time we are asking them to welcome live Serbs," Dr. Gashi testified in an emotional plea.

Dr. Gashi acknowledged the right of Serbs to return to their homes in Kosovo. He also voiced strong opposition to "Belgrade's interference in [the] United Nations mission administration [UNMIK] in Kosovo."

Dr. Trajkovic addressed a primary concern of the Kosovo Serb population, describing the fundamental unresolved issue as "the wish of the Albanians that Kosovo be exclusively their state and the wish of the Serbs that Kosovo remains part of their state."

Dr. Trajkovic detailed a situation whereby the Albanian majority seeks the "Albanization and not multi-nationalization" of Kosovo. In this way, Kosovar Albanians dominate the hospitals, the universities, the media, and even the transportation sector, creating a highly segregated and polarized society. Islamic extremists, who go unpunished, are attempting to "wipe out the foundations of a civilization" by destroying churches, headstones, and cultural monuments, Trajkovic added.

Ms. Percival discussed the ICG's recently released report on Kosovo, noting that Mitrovica is a "frequent flashpoint for confrontation and a source of instability." Attacks and reprisals are commonplace.

Offering a multi-track plan of action, Percival recommended that the international community take four specific steps: pressure Belgrade to end its policy of incitement and continued support for parallel institutions; encourage the rule of law; establish a specially administered area in the north where Kosovar Serbs live; and promote UNMIK's transparency.

Deputy Prime Minister Covic defended the right of Serbs in Kosovo to be free from "inexcusable persecution". "In Kosovo and Metohija, whatever the final solution might be, our desire is to have a strong and successful multi-ethnic society," Covic asserted.

Covic said ethnic Serbs continue to flee Kosovo, in response to worrisome figures on the number of killings of Serbs, attacks, and missing persons. Kosovar leaders have shunned a bi-lingual society, inter-ethnic tolerance, unbiased police and an independent judiciary in favor of extremism, Covic maintained.

Co-Chairman Smith, concerned about reports of pervasive criminality in Kosovo, raised the issues of missing persons, human trafficking, and perpetuation of parallel institutions.

Ms. Percival said that UNMIK, in cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), continues to exhume bodies from mass graves and is making efforts to account for missing persons. Though UNMIK established a trafficking and prostitution unit, the witness protection program is very weak.

Mr. Covic responded that Yugoslav authorities are working hard to identify remains and find missing persons, noting the wide disparity between estimates of missing Albanians and Serbs. He added that Yugoslavia takes the issue of human trafficking very seriously and that anti-trafficking legislation is pending in Belgrade.

Dr. Gashi labeled Yugoslav support for parallel institutions as an attempt to sabotage UNMIK's institutions. To calm the psychological insecurity, the Serbs have to demonstrate the will to work with us, Gashi testified.

Mr. Covic stressed that parallel institutions were not created by the current Yugoslav authorities and once the Serbs' basic human rights in Kosovo are met, there will be no need for parallel institutions.

Dr. Gashi reiterated his commitment to equal rights, an open civil society, and cooperation. In response to concerns raised, he indicated that a strong consensus exists among Kosovars opposing the destruction of Serb property and violence against Orthodox nuns and lay people in Kosovo.

In light of the OSCE/UNCHR report, all witnesses agreed to its generally accurate portrayal of the situation and reasonable recommendations. Urging all parties to move forward, Senator Voinovich pressed for more information on allegations that Belgrade is "meddling" in the governance of Kosovo.

Commissioners Smith and Voinovich pledged to continue their support for U.S. and international engagement to help resolve pressing issues in Kosovo. Any perpetrator of a human rights violation in Kosovo needs to be held accountable, Smith concluded.

The hearing came to a close after Co-Chairman Smith recognized Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) for a few closing remarks. Serwer stressed the need to support the creation of an infrastructure in which the next Kosovo parliament can effectively operate. USIP had recently hosted in Virginia a session on inter-ethnic cooperation among Kosovo parliamentarians. Thirty of the participants attended the hearing.

An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses are located on the Helsinki Commission's Web site, http://www.csce.gov.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission intern Derek Politzer contributed to this article.

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Most recently, on November 19, the government barred four journalists from attending a regular press conference after the weekly cabinet meeting because the journalists were believed to be unsympathetic to the government. Although this decision was ultimately rescinded after a public outcry, including a protest from the journalists' union, it was further evidence of the government's relentless efforts to curb any reporting it doesn't like. In fact, in one of the more shocking episodes of the battle for free speech in Slovakia, it has been reported that Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister of the country and, not insignificantly, a former boxer, warned journalist Dusan Valko just a few weeks ago that `I will punch you so that your own mother will not recognize you.' So much for Mr. Meciar's tolerance for other points of view and nonviolence.   The Slovak Government continues to pursue a minorities policy that would be laughable if it were not so wrong and harmful. This policy has included everything from banning the playing of non-Slovak national anthems last year to the more recent decision to bar the issuance of report cards in the Hungarian language, reversing long-standing practices. Such petty gestures are beneath the dignity of the Slovak people, whose heritage has survived more than a thousand years of foreign, and often markedly repressive, rule. The Slovak language and culture, now protected in an independent Slovakia, are not so weak that they can only flourish at the expense of others. More seriously, it should be noted that past repressive crackdowns on minorities, for example, in Cluj, Romania, and in Kosovo, Serbia, began by whittling away at the minority language opportunities that had traditionally been respected by the majority community. Accordingly, these seemingly small restrictions on the Hungarian minority in Slovakia may very well be the harbinger of more repressive tactics ahead. With this in mind, the failure of the Slovak parliament to adopt a comprehensive minority language law, and the recommendation of the Ministry of Culture that such a law is not even necessary, defy common sense. Current laws on minority-language use in Slovakia do not provide adequate or satisfactory guidance regarding the use of Hungarian for official purposes, as the recent report-card flap shows. Much harm can be done until a minority language law is passed based on a genuine accommodation between the majority and minority communities.   Finally, recent reductions in government-provided cultural subsidies have had a disproportionately negative effect on the Hungarian community. The Slovak Government's defense, that all ethnic groups have been equally disadvantaged by these cut-backs, is unpersuasive in light of the Culture Minister Hudec's stated intent to `revive' Slovak culture in ethnically mixed areas and to make cultural subsidies reflect that goal. While Hungarians suffer from a more direct form of government intolerance, other ethnic groups suffer more indirectly. Put another way, it is not so much government action which threatens Romani communities in Slovakia, it is government inaction. According to the most recent State Department report on Slovakia, skinhead violence against Roma is a serious and growing problem; three Roma were murdered as a result of hate crimes last year, and others have been severely injured. Some Roma leaders, in response to their government's inability or unwillingness to protect them, have called for the formation of self-defense units. Obviously, the Slovak Government is just not doing enough to address the deadly threats they face. Moreover, the repugnant anti-Roma statements that have repeatedly been made by Jan Slota, a member of the ruling coalition, have fostered this climate of hatred.   The fact that the Czech Republic, Germany, and other European countries also confront skinhead movements in no way relieves Slovakia of its responsibility to combat racism, just as Slovakia's skinhead problem does not relieve the other countries of their responsibilities. It is time and past time for Prime Minister Meciar to use his moral authority and political leadership to set Slovakia on the right course. He must make clear, once and for all, that Jan Slota, who also called the Hungarian minority `barbarian Asiatic hordes', is not his spokesman, and that the Slovak National Party's unreconstructed fascists do not represent the majority of the people of Slovakia.   Mr. President, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, including my co-chairman, Representative Christopher H. Smith, and ranking members Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steny Hoyer, have raised our concern about developments in Slovakia with Slovak officials on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Slovak leadership is one excuse after another, and all we see is a search for one scapegoat after another: it's the Hungarians, it's the Czechs, it's the Ukrainian mafia, it's the hostile international community seeking to destroy Slovakia's good name, it's a public relations problem abroad, not real problems back home: in short, there is always somebody else to blame besides the people that are, in fact, running the country.   I don't mean to suggest that there have been no positive developments in Slovakia over the past 4 years. In fact, I have been especially heartened by the emergence of a genuine civil society that is increasingly willing to express its views on a broad range of issues. But positive initiatives by the Government have been too few and too far between. I make this statement today in the hope that the leadership in Bratislava will start to make real reforms, like their colleagues in Romania, and begin to restore the promising future that the people of Slovakia deserve. Their present policies are leading down a path toward international isolation, increasing criticism, and economic deprivation for their people. One Belarus is enough.

  • The Current Situation in Croatia

    This briefing addressed the political situation in Croatia in the context of impending elections for offices at the municipal and county levels, as well as for seats in the Chamber of Counties of the Croatian Sabor, that would be an important step in the process of reintegrating Easter Slavonia. Some issues that had been noted during past election monitoring operations, such as problems with the development of the independent media, a lack of transparency in the electoral system, and a tendency for decisions to favor the ruling party, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Jonas Rolett of the National Democratic Institute; Vesna Pusic, a professor for the University of Zagreb; Milbert Shin of Human Rights Watch; and Nenad Porges, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Croatian Embassy – evaluated the opportunity for improvement in the elections, and the role that nongovernmental organizations like NDI and Human Rights Watch would play in this process. Several tactics for improving the electoral process in Croatia, including strengthening political parties and providing neutral, accessible information, were topics of discussion.

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