Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 157

A fourth day of negotiations yesterday failed to end a blockade of the city of Orahovac, located some thirty miles southeast of Pristina, by ethnic Albanian protesters opposed to the entry of Russian troops into the city. As they have every day this week, Russian and NATO officers met with representatives of the city’s Albanian community. But the talks produced no results. The ethnic Albanians remain determined to resist a NATO order–issued on August 20–which calls for Russian troops to replace the Dutch and German peacekeepers now deployed in Orahovac. To date, all parties have refrained from any use of force. Both the Russians and the NATO troops have insisted that the deployment order will not be changed, and that they are prepared to wait out the Albanian boycott, however long it may take. But the Albanian protesters apparently have the same idea. Reports from the area say that they are equally determined to wait out the NATO troops and have settled in for the long haul.

The idea of stationing Russian forces in Orahovac was part of a broader agreement hammered out by U.S. and Russian negotiators during arduous and at times acrimonious talks this past June in Helsinki. The idea drew some early criticism as reports surfaced that Russian mercenaries–and possibly a large number of them–may have taken part in a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign waged by Serb forces in and around Orahovac. Indeed, the area is reported to be home to the greatest concentration of mass graves in all of Kosovo, and it is thought that more than 1,000 ethnic Albanians may have been massacred there. NATO peacekeeping officials also suggest that Orahovac contains the largest concentration of war crimes suspects still living in Kosovo, a group which includes local Serbs who have been identified by witnesses and survivors (New York Times, August 24).

Local Albanians loathe the Russians for what they believe is their role in the ethnic cleansing campaign. They also fear that the Russian KFOR troops will be unlikely to pursue or apprehend the suspected war crimes suspects holed up in Orahovac’s small, 2,500-strong Serbian ghetto.

All of this has made for a volatile mix. At this point NATO would probably prefer to reassign the Russian troops slated for service in Orahovac to some other part of Kosovo. With Orahovac apparently in mind, however, Russian officials have insisted that NATO observe the Helsinki agreements to the letter. That stance is presumably behind NATO’s insistence that the protests outside of Orahovac will not alter KFOR’s deployment plans, and that the Russian troops will ultimately be stationed there. The United States earlier this week made clear its support for that position. U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said at a press briefing that Albanian suspicions about the Russians were misplaced. “We believe that Russian troops will act evenhandedly,” he said, and that “they will fulfill their mandate in Orahovac, just as they have done elsewhere in Kosovo.” He also said that Washington fully expects the Russian deployment in Orahovac to go ahead (Reuters, August 24).

Foley also made the point that ethnic Albanians had protested the planned deployment of Russian troops to the city of Kosovska Kamenica–in the U.S. sector of Kosovo–earlier this month. Those protests, he said, have died out as the Russians have demonstrated their commitment to KFOR’s goal of providing security for all people in Kosovo (Reuters, August 24). But leaders of the ethnic Albanian protesters in Orahovac see the situation differently. They argue that the participation of Russian mercenaries in the ethnic cleansing operations around Orahovac makes Russians particularly unwelcome there. The situation, they say, is very different from the one prevailing in Kosovska Kamenica (Reuters, August 25).