Opposition cries ‘treason’ and shepherds fume as Kosovo redraws border with Montenegro

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 1:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 9:28pm

There are no guards in the uninhabited Rugova mountains bordering Montenegro, only sheep on pasture land, but a dispute over defining the borderline could push Kosovo into chaos as the political opposition views the demarcation deal as close to “treason”.

The tiny Balkan territory, which unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008, last year reached a border demarcation agreement with its western neighbour, but Kosovo’s parliament has yet to ratify it.

In the former Yugoslavia, which collapsed in a series of 1990s wars, the border of Kosovo and Montenegro was internal and was never precisely drawn.

An agreement on the border is crucial for Kosovo’s bid to gain visa-free travel in the European Union and further integration with the bloc, a key goal of the predominantly ethnic Albanian territory of 1.8 million people.

According to the deal, some 8,000 hectares of pine woods, springs and pasture land are to belong to Montenegro. The land is almost all Kosovo state-owned but has traditionally been used by Kosovo’s shepherds.

“Our fertile pastures and water sources are given away to Montenegro,” lamented Zymer Demebogja, a shepherd from the village of Boge who’s against the deal.

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It had seemed the agreement’s ratification would proceed smoothly as the two neighbours have friendly ties since Podgorica was among the first to recognise Pristina’s independence, despite fierce objections from Belgrade. Serbia still considers Kosovo its southern province.

However, ratification by Kosovo’s parliament has been constantly postponed as the opposition has seized on the issue. Violent protests, including releasing tear gas in the assembly, have broken out.

In recent weeks grenades were fired at parliament, the headquarters of Kosovo state TV and radio (RTK) as well as the home of its director general.

And on Saturday a group calling itself ‘Rugosavit’ forwarded an open letter to the country’s newspapers addressed to the prime minister and his deputies, warning against any ratification which would lead to “giving up our land”.

The effort to define the frontier with Montenegro has been called “a deal of capitulation” by leading opposition figure Albin Kurti.

“The parliament is being called to legitimise this treason,” he said rejecting the ratification.

Kurti even said recently that a war between Kosovo and Montenegro over the issue was “likely ... in the next four to five years.”

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The shepherds have said they would continue to lead their sheep to pasture in the Rugova mountains regardless of the border defined in the capitals.

Part of the state-owned land used by Kosovo Albanian inhabitants from 14 settlements nestled at the foot of the mountains, known as the ‘Albanian Alps,’ will belong to Montenegro.

“We don’t accept the new border. It threatens our existence as it has moved kilometres into our territory and now is set at our doorsteps,” said Demebogja, 65, pointing up at the mountain peaks, before returning to cut wood for the approaching winter.

His co-villager Arif Demaj echoed that sentiment and stressed that all the toponyms, or place names, in the region were in Albanian.

“It is a foolish agreement. I haven’t seen for all my life a single Montenegrin policeman or soldier stepping into or guarding the territory that is now given to them,” the 95-year-old added while adjusting his traditional white head kerchief.

He argued that even some graves of ethnic Albanians could be “left on the other side by (Hashim) Thaci and (Isa) Mustafa,” referring to Kosovo’s president and prime minister respectively.

But Montenegro’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said recently that his country was not looking to take “even one square meter of Kosovo’s territory.” He called on Pristina to follow his country’s example and ratify the deal as its parliament did last December.

Kosovo’s opposition meanwhile is calling for the demarcation to be done through international arbitration.

Analysts say the opposition also perceives the issue as another way to slam Thaci, a dominant figure on Kosovo’s political scene for nearly 20 years.

Ratifying the demarcation deal has been turning into a vote for or against the ruling coalition, they say.

“The opposition at the same time uses this... namely to increase public support and overthrow the government,” political analyst Adrian Collaku said.

For his part, Thaci, aspiring to bring Kosovo closer to the EU, has warned that refusing the border agreement would be “fatal for Kosovo.”

However, it is difficult for him to obtain the necessary backing of a two-thirds majority in the 120-seat assembly.