Russian patrols raise Kosovo tension Kosovo tense as Russians patrol `Arrogant' Russians roll into Kosovo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE IS nothing obviously unusual about the old cement factory at Kamenica; at a glance, it could be any one of dozens of the small local bases that have been established by Nato across Kosovo.

There is the flimsy sentry box, the rusty fence with its garland of barbed wire, and behind it a chunky armoured car, hot to the touch under the midday sun. But the soldiers here, 20 miles South-east of Pristina, shake their heads and turn away when reporters approach, and the Albanian children playing outside regard them with suspicion. Flapping from the flagpole is not the Stars and Stripes of the Americans who control this sector, but the vertical white, blue and red of the Russian Federation.

After weeks of strained diplomacy, the Russians have arrived in rural Kosovo. Kamenica is a base like no other, and nobody here seems quite sure what it means. Since the early hours of the liberation last month, when Russian paratroopers swept through Kosovo to seize the province's only airport, hours before the arrival of British troops, their presence has been an embarrassment to the Nato forces. Last Tuesday, after a series of delays and high level bickering, the first Russian planes landed. Up to 3,600 soldiers will deploy in four areas of Kosovo, and already tensions are rising.

The problem is put succinctly by one of the Albanian boys by the gate. "The Russians are spoiling everything because they like the Serbs." When the advance party arrived on Saturday, locals turned out with homemade cakes and handshakes - but all of them were Kosovo Serbs.

"Read history and you will see," says Vladimir Vasic, who lives 100 metres from the base.

"We have the same traditions, we are all Slavs and we all trust in the same God. The Russian soldiers left a very good impression."

"We're only here to do the job of peace-keepers, to support and help Serbs and Albanians," said Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Markov the Russian commander. "We do not make any distinction between them."

But the Albanians, who make up more than two-thirds of the local population, stayed at home. "When it comes to the Russians, the matter is closed," says Ramiz Arifi, a liaison officer with the Kosovo Liberation Army. "We have nothing to discuss with them." Superficially, the differences appear petty. "Perhaps I shouldn't call them arrogant, but their behaviour was pretty low," says Mr Arifi.

In their meetings with local Albanian leaders, he says, the Russian officers insisted on using Serbian rather than translated Albanian. There is an ongoing dispute about a building which presently serves as the local Albanian civilian government office.

"They said that they want to use it, but then where will our people go?" asked Ramadan Dermaku, another KLA officer. "They told us to be out by Monday morning, and we are hoping that the Americans can negotiate something. If they try to make us go, we will refuse."

Beneath all this is a long history of mistrust, and a conviction that Russia has interfered on the side of Serbs throughout Kosovo's history. The prospect of Kalashnikov-bearing Orthodox Slav soldiers brought thousands of demonstrators out onto the streets of Orahovac last week; there are rumours of a protest in Kamenica today

The Albanians are alarmed by reports that Russian mercenaries fought with Serb paramilitaries during the Nato bombing campaign. KLA officers say they have seen Russian identity cards on the bodies of dead paramilitaries."That's the biggest reason the Russian forces are not welcome," says Mr Arifi. "They make us think there might be more conflict."

Even local Serbs do not appear particularly excited by the Russian arrivals. "Russians, Americans - we make no difference between them," one old Serb woman said. "We welcome anyone who is human."

The situation in the area is tense, and there is real peace-keeping work to be done. There were shootings at the weekend and a Serb man was taken to hospital with gunshot wounds.

The plan is that soldiers of the two militaries - Russian and American - will patrol together, and that exclusively Russian operations will be avoided. Whether this will dilute Albanian animosity remains to be seen. "They say that they come here as peace-keepers," says Mr Dermaku. "But when we look at them, we see Serbs."

t Two members of the Kosovo Liberation Army shot dead by British peace- keeping soldiers on 2 July, during celebrations of Kosovo's rebellion against Serb rule, were buried yesterday.