Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 153

Enduring tensions between Russia’s KFOR contingent and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population look set to worsen this week as Russian troops prepare to take over for Dutch peacekeepers in the city of Orahovac. Located in the German sector of Kosovo some forty miles southwest of Pristina, Orahovac has for weeks been the scene of some of Kosovo’s most virulent anti-Russian protests. Ethnic Albanians living in and about Orahovac accuse Russian mercenaries of having played a prominent part in ethnic cleansing operations conducted earlier by Serb and Yugoslav forces in the area. They fear that the Russian KFOR troops, who are to take over this week for the Dutch contingent currently overseeing the city, will favor the Serb minority there. Ethnic Albanians also charge that the Russian contingent is likely to be less than vigilant in apprehending Serbs holed up in Orahovac who are suspected of wartime atrocities.

The intense opposition to the deployment of Russian troops in Orahovac was manifested yesterday when some 1,500 ethnic Albanians gathered in the city’s center to protest the impending arrival of the Russians. Amid chants of “NATO yes, Russians no,” speakers at the rally announced that demonstrations this week would aim at blocking the three main access roads to Orahovac by which the Russian troops might arrive. The speakers urged people with tractors, cars and buses to block off the roads (AP, August 22).

Yesterday’s protests came as the Dutch and German troops in the Orahovac area launched a crackdown on the local Serb minority–apparently in anticipation of the arrival of the Russian troops. On August 20 the Western peacekeepers arrested three Serbs suspected of having committed atrocities against ethnic Albanians during Belgrade’s brutal police actions in the renegade province. The three were reportedly held for questioning over their possible involvement in “serious crimes,” NATO sources said. The NATO forces followed that action on August 21 with an operation aimed at collecting unauthorized weaponry held by ethnic Serbs in Orahovac. Some 600 firearms had reportedly been turned in by the end of that day. The NATO troops had threatened to launch house-by-house searches to ensure that all such weapons were surrendered by the deadline, but yesterday extended it (AP, August 21-22).

The weekend’s actions come amid a broader continuation of tensions in Kosovo which have seen KFOR troops in general–and the Russian contingent in particular–subjected to threats from armed groupings in Kosovo. Three Russian checkpoints, for example, were attacked on August 7. The action left one Russian soldier wounded. Less than a week later, on August 11, U.S. peacekeepers had to come to the aid of Russian troops who faced hundreds of ethnic Albanian protesters armed with rocks and sticks. Warning shots were fired and the incident ended without injury. Afterward, however, U.S. Brigadier General John Craddock, commander of KFOR’s southeast sector, told reporters that the Russian troops were the victims of what “appears to be a significant disinformation campaign” against them. “There is a preconceived Albanian notion that the Russians will favor the Serbs,” he said. Craddock said that he had seen no evidence of such behavior by the Russian contingent, which he described as having acted professionally (New York Times, August 7; Reuters, August 12).

To date, the Russian troops in Kosovo–which are stationed in three different sectors and at the airport near Pristina–appear to have worked most smoothly with the American contingent in the southeastern part of the province. On August 10, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had completed the deployment of all Russian troops to Kosovo (Itar-Tass, August 10). Under an agreement reached between NATO and Moscow, the Russian presence in Kosovo is to number 3,600 troops.