13 February 2008 – Dejan Baljosevic rarely steps beyond the coils of barbed wire around the Serb hilltop in Orahovac in western Kosovo, where 450 residents, mostly retired or unemployed, live amid 20,000 ethnic Albanians.

“Some of us go to the Albanian parts of town for shopping,” he says. “But never on Albanian national holidays, when passions run higher, or Saturday, the main market day.”

For four years, Mr Baljosevic was the Serbian government’s co-ordinator for Orahovac and nearby Velika Hoca. Tensions are still high in the area after the 1998-1999 war between Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and ethnic Albanian rebels that ended with Nato intervention on the rebel side.

A small café near the Orahovac hilltop is shuttered, apparently eclipsed by the co-ordination office as the place to stop for a drink and a chat. Only a quarter of the residents work, almost all in low-intensity government jobs.

Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, says “all should be done for the Serbs to remain on their land and live safely as citizens of Serbia” after ethnic Albanian leaders declare independence – a move expected in a matter of days.

Dozens of co-ordination centres, run as an arm of Mr Samardzic’s ministry, already maintain a lifeline to Belgrade. Under an agreement in 2002, Kosovo’s post-war United Nations administration tried to smooth the return of tens of thousands of displaced Serbs by letting Belgrade look after healthcare and education in the enclaves.

“This talk about returns is not serious,” Mr Baljosevic says. “Almost everyone who came back has been elderly.”

UN administrators say that the Serb isolation is self-imposed – the result of boycotting local elections, for example, to avoid acknowledging Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

As local co-ordinator Mr Baljosevic – a Serb – helped his fellow enclave residents by asking them what they needed and requesting the necessary funds, he says. But then his party lost badly in the Serbian parliamentary elections last year.

Marjan Saric, a member of the Democrats – the party of Boris Tadic, Serbia’s pro-western president – became the new co-ordinator. But the co-ordination programme is under the thumb of Vojislav Kostunica, the nationalist-leaning prime minister, who has rejected integration with the European Union because of Brussels’ plans to send a “rule of law” mission to bolster Kosovo’s independence.

The guiding document for the EU-led mission will be the status package unveiled a year ago by Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy.

Besides devolving power to Serbs in the north, the Ahtisaari plan confers protection on remote enclaves and churches. Kosovo Albanian leaders, anxious for EU support, agreed to “embed Ahtisaari” in the new state’s constitution even though Russia, Serbia’s ally, blocked the plan at the United Nations Security Council last year.

Belgrade has promised to respond swiftly when Pristina declares independence, possibly with an economic embargo. But the government’s more pro-western faction says trade will resume soon. Mladjan Dinkic, economy minister, says his top concerns will be infrastructure and jobs for the Serb communities left behind.

The Serbian government has allocated 2.2bn dinars (£20m, €27.5m, $40m) this year for the improvement of living standards in Kosovo, compared to just 20m dinars last year, Serbian newspapers reported. The Kosovo ministry’s budget has climbed from 3.5bn dinars to 5.84bn dinars, while other assistance comes through regular ministries.

The Serbian action plan is not dissimilar to the Ahtisaari plan. “There’s not a big disagreement about the picture on the ground, only about form,” Mr Dinkic said.

State salaries and subsidised goods will continue coming via Velika Hoca’s Serbian post office, with mail arriving by Nato-escorted convoys. Corrupt co-ordinators may take a share of the aid, but “every enclave is its own story”, Mr Baljosevic says. On the whole, they are no worse than mayors of Serbian towns, a sympathetic EU official suggests.

Boban Misic, a laid-off factory worker in Velika Hoca, says he will ignore independence and hope there is no violence. “I own my house here,” he says, even if Belgrade’s “monthly payments to stay and do nothing … become a trap”.

Some of his neighbours in this all-Serb village scrape a living selling plum brandy and souvenirs to Nato soldiers, Mr Misic says. Velika Hoca has only fallen to half its pre-war size, although Mr Saric says more than 70 per cent of the Serbs left in the area could flee soon after independence.

But Mr Baljosevic disagrees: “Everyone with the means to leave already did.”

Source: Financial Times