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Why did the Serbian government dismiss the mayor of Presheva, Shqiprim Arifi?

Why did the Serbian government dismiss the mayor of Presheva, Shqiprim Arifi?

A political crisis erupted again in a municipality in the south of Serbia inhabited by an Albanian majority. Until the local elections, Preševo ​​will be managed by the Provisional Authority appointed by the Government of Serbia, after dissolving the local Assembly. With the dissolution of the Assembly, the mandate of the mayor and other members of the local government also ended. The last mayor of the Municipality of Presevo, Shqiprim Arifi, has accused the authorities in Belgrade of "violent" removal and discrimination of Albanians.

"The method of election of the Provisional Authority is completely illegal and unconstitutional", says Shqirim Arif's cabinet's written response to Radio Free Europe (REL).

The Alternative Party for Change, from which Arifi comes, had the majority in the Municipal Assembly of Preševo, which has a total of 38 delegates. On the other hand, Ragmi Mustafa, who has been appointed by the Government of Serbia as the head of the Provisional Authority, says that the local Assembly has not convened since July 2023 and that this was the reason for its dissolution.

"The previous coalition gathered around Shqirim Arif's Alternative for Change lost the majority in the Assembly and for nine months cannot call any session", said Ragmi Mustafa for Radio Free Europe.

He is the head of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH), which was the second largest in the local Assembly. This is the third time that the Government of Serbia has appointed the Interim Authority to lead Preševo ​​in the last seven years. During these seven years, these will be the fourth local elections. Voting should be held on June 2, when in addition to Belgrade, more than 80 cities and municipalities should vote.

The municipality of Preševo ​​has more than 33,000 inhabitants and half of the 61,000 Albanians registered according to the last census in Serbia live there. They are also represented in Bujanoc and Medvegja, two municipalities in the south that are part of what is known as the Presheva Valley.
 In recent years, Shqiprim Arifi's Alternative for Change and Shaip Kamberi's Party for Democratic Action, currently the only Albanian representative in the republican parliament, have been in power in Presevo.

In the decision to dissolve the Assembly of Preševo, approved on April 18, the Government of Serbia referred to the article of the Law on Local Self-Government, which states that the local assembly can be dissolved if it does not convene for more than three months. By decision of the Government, five members of the Temporary Authority have been appointed, while the law orders that the representatives of the parties represented in the dispersed Assembly be elected "taking into account the political and national composition".

In addition to the chairman Ragmi Mustafa, that body also includes Tefik Bajrami from the PDSH, the chairman of the Movement for Reform Sami Salihu, Shkëmbim Veliu from the Party for Democratic Action and Branko Trajkovic from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). In the dissolved Assembly of Presevo, 36 delegates were from Albanian parties and two from the coalition led by the Serbian Progressive Party.

The office of the former mayor of the municipality, Shqiprim Arifi, has accused the councilors from the Progressive Party of not appearing at the last session of the Assembly scheduled for October "without any notice or explanation", after which the Alternative for Change lost its majority . Branko Trajković from SNS was not available for comment on REL until the publication of this text - so why did they not support the previous government in Preševo? Ragmi Mustafa emphasizes that the question for official Belgrade is why the Temporary Authority was not formed earlier.

"We have not been able to influence more than showing the embassies and the Minister of State Administration and Local Self-Government that it is necessary to announce elections and dissolve the Assembly", he adds.

The Government of Serbia, the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government and the Coordinating Body for Presevo, Bujanoc and Medvegja did not respond to Shqiprim Arif's accusations of "illegal and violent removal" from the position of the head of Presevo and discrimination against Albanians. The question of why the formation of the Interim Authority was awaited is also unanswered.

"It would be difficult to say that that municipality is outside the eyes of Belgrade, if there is already a governmental Coordinating Body for Presevo, Bujanoc and Medvegja. That body should first raise the alarm that things are not right and that the governance is not working", says Aleksandar Popov from the Center for Regionalism.

The coordinating body for Presevo, Bujanoc and Medvegja was established more than 20 years ago, after the conflict between the police and the army with the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvegja and Bujanoc (UÇMB).

The conflicts erupted after the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement in June 1999, which ended the war in Kosovo. The armed clashes in the south of Serbia lasted until May 2001. The coordinating body was supposed to help calm inter-ethnic tensions and normalize life in the Preševo ​​Valley.

The founding act provides for the state to focus on accelerated economic empowerment and political and social integration in the three municipalities. For his dismissal, in addition to the authorities in Belgrade, Shqiprim Arifi also blamed some Albanian political representatives in the Presheva Valley.

In a Facebook post dated April 20, he accused them of becoming "an easy tool for (Serbian President Aleksandar) Vucic and Serbia to carry out his anti-Albanian agenda." Ragmi Mustafa calls Arif's accusations against Albanian political representatives "demagoguery and fabrications".

"When he is appointed by the government in Belgrade, it is quite normal and when he is not appointed, he makes absolutely low accusations and attacks against other politicians", says Mustafa.

The Government of Serbia had appointed the Provisional Authority in Presevo in 2017 and 2020 and then Shqiprim Arifi was appointed as its head. The parties that make up the Municipal Assembly have the right to propose their candidates for the Temporary Authority to the Government. Arif's Alternative for Change, as stated in the response to the REL, this time has been rejected.

"Because nothing was going through official channels, the names (of the candidates) were requested via Viber urgently. The competent ministry did not participate at all, unlike the last time when they addressed in writing and gave a legal deadline for each party to propose a name for the Temporary Authority", adds this party.

Due to disagreements between Albanian political parties, the government local in Preševo ​​has been unstable for several years, recalls Aleksandar Popov from the Center for Regionalism.

"The conflict between Shqiprim Arifi and other Albanian politicians has been going on for a long time. Arifi was considered a politician who has good relations with Belgrade. Obviously, now there has been a reversal", he added.

Popov, too, points out that Belgrade's "old policy" is to create discord between political representatives of a community.

"I would not be surprised if there were some of those games, if there was a grain of strife among the political representatives of the Albanians, if the situation in that local self-government (Preshevo) worsened, if there was no harmony and joint performance of the representatives of the Albanians in the south Popov emphasizes.

In a post on Facebook on April 20, Shqirim Arifi said that his dismissal came after Vucic's "last public threat".

On April 14, the president of Serbia announced that anyone who violates the country's constitutional order will be "arrested and prosecuted."

"All of you who violate the constitutional order of Serbia, all of you who participate in it in any way, with protests, demonstrations, in any way - will answer for it, all Albanians who participate in it will answer Vucic said.

Three days later, on April 17, the deputy director of the Kosovo Police, Dejan Jankovic, and four Kosovo policemen were detained at the border points with Serbia. The Serbian police announced that they were taken into custody for a "security check". Jankovic was detained for up to 48 hours, while the Minister of Internal Affairs of Kosovo, Xelal Svecla, said that Jankovic was in custody under "accusations of overthrowing the constitutional order of Serbia".

On April 17, according to Kosovo authorities, Serbia detained over 1,400 citizens of Kosovo at the border points for more than 20 hours. The Government of Kosovo described these actions as Serbia's revenge for the support that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe gave for Kosovo's membership in this organization. Serbia denied these accusations, saying that delays at the border were caused by additional security measures and that the movement of Kosovo citizens "is not restricted".

The European Union and the US State Department reacted to the arrests. The State Department called on Serbia to refrain from unilateral and uncoordinated actions and to fully respect the agreements reached within the dialogue mediated by the EU.

Shqiprim Arifi linked his dismissal to the decision of the court in Vranje, which ordered him and the Alternative for Change party to pay a fine of 470 euros for placing the Albanian flag in the party's facility in Bujanoc on November 27, 2022, the day before the anniversary of the Independence of Albania.

In the decision, it was said that he and his party have been found guilty since on November 27, 2022 "they displayed the flag of a foreign country, Albania, and did not display the flag of Serbia". With this, the court said, Arifi and his party have violated the law that regulates the use of the flag and other national symbols of Serbia. The Government of Serbia did not even respond to REL's questions about Arif's accusations.
It is not the first time that political representatives of Albanians are punished for placing the Albanian flag. The Serbian authorities have signed three agreements for the integration of the Albanians of the Preševo ​​Valley in the state institutions of Serbia in 2001, 2009 and 2013.

They are mainly related to the exercise of collective rights and continuous integration in institutions such as the police, judiciary and education. However, Albanians from the south have often accused official Belgrade of violating their rights - for example, for the lack of texts in the Albanian language or for the passivation of addresses, that is, the deletion of citizens from the address where they were registered.

"For a long time there has been dissatisfaction with the attitude of the authorities in Belgrade towards the Albanians, that carelessness reigns, that development is not taken into account", adds Popov.

In the elections of the Republic of December 2023, Albanians appeared in two columns. The Party for Democratic Action led by Shaip Kamberi passed the electoral threshold and won a mandate, while the list led by Shqiprim Arifi was left without a representative in the Assembly of Serbia.

No national minority is guaranteed a parliamentary mandate, but they have a lower percentage threshold in elections, which allows them to enter the Assembly more easily. According to census data, Albanians are the fourth largest minority in Serbia./rel


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