Serbian Enclave Vows Never to Secede

Surrounded by working-class, Tito-era skyscrapers, a triangular dirt area sits at the center of northern Mitrovica, the main Serbian enclave in Kosovo.

In this muddy, grim and miserable setting sits a brand new beautiful bronze statue. Erected in the middle of the plain earth, it features a handsome man with mustache, wearing a coat with starry decorations. But this isn't some Serbian hero of the liberation wars of the 19th century against the Ottoman occupation.

The character, a certain Chcherbina Gregory Stepanovich (1868-1903), was a representative of the Russian tsar in Mitrovica, which at the time was the largest city of Kosovo. He spent his time hunting. One day, wandering alone in the woods, he was assassinated by "katchaks," Albanian bandits.

Two tall poles surround the statue. One flag has horizontal stripes -- the red, blue and white of Serbia. On the other pole waves a Russian flag with similar white stripes, red and blue. To make things even clearer, a banner hangs from the intersection crying: "Rusijo pomozi" (Russia, come to our help).

While the Albanians -- who make up 90 percent of the province's population and are supported by the United States -- are preparing to proclaim a unilateral declaration of independence, Russia has informed the United Nations that it would veto recognition of the new state as long as Serbia does not agree.

The United States is admired by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians for its support of their struggle to separate from Serbia. A U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign halted a Serb offensive against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999. Kosovo is the only predominantly Muslim territory where people are completely pro-American. American flags are everywhere and the main street of the capital Pristina is called Bill Clinton Boulevard.

The United States and most European Union members, except the countries that have their own separatist problems like Spain, Cyprus and Romania, support Kosovo's independence after years of international administration.

But Russia, a traditional Serb ally, showing Orthodox Slavic solidarity with the Serbs, has objected to any unilateral declaration, fearing it would encourage other separatist movements in the region. Russia is using Kosovo for its tactical advantage, as part of a strategy to reassert itself on the international stage.

"International law is clear: Kosovo is an integral part of the territory of my country, Serbia, I would never accept its independence, or even its division," explains Velimir Krstic, a retired high school teacher, who has always lived in Mitrovica. "I do not want Serbs to be expelled from here, as they were in 1999, expelled from Pristina or Metohija ( in the western part of the province, which historically belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church)."

It is almost impossible to find a difference of opinion within this community. Even among the more moderate like Bojan Vasic, a 24-year-old law student.

"Both sides are ethnically homogeneous too, it encourages extremism. Therefore, nationalism against nationalism," he says. "And if the United States and the Europeans rush to recognize an independent Kosovo, this will only enlarge a sense of humiliation among Serbs and their radicalization. But we will not leave."

In the spring of 1999, a U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign halted the onslaught of forced evictions and killings of up to tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians by Serbian security forces and paramilitary bands.

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