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Opinions Archive 1999
Russian retreat from Orahovac seen as KLA victory

Russian troops retreated August 27 from a five- day deadlock with ethnic Albanians, failing to enter the city of Orahovac. The Russians were scheduled to take over peacekeeping activities from Dutch KFOR troops this week.

"The main thing is to not destabilize [the region] and for the problem to be fixed in a peaceful way, without the use of force - that's the line from our command," said Lieutenant- Colonel Mikhail Kovtunenko, spokesman for Russian forces. Kovtunenko also said Russian troops could wait months before returning.

The Russian withdrawal followed the August 27 failure of negotiations between KFOR and the Albanians and the subsequent refusal by KFOR to remove Albanian roadblocks by force.

The failure of the Orahovac negotiations between KFOR-represented by Dutch, German and Russian officers-and ethnic Albanians is largely due to the fact that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is, and has been, backing the Albanians. Before today, however, that support was not public. On August 27, the KLA made it official.

An armed senior KLA officer, Sadik Halitjaha, unexpectedly entered the KFOR negotiations in Orahovac, saying he was ordered to attend by KLA headquarters. Halitjaha called on Russia to apologize publicly for its support of the Serbs during the war, adding, however, that such an apology would not result in the lifting of the blockade.

It is clear now that ethnic Albanians in Orahovac dared to oppose the Russian presence in their town because they were sure about the KLA's military backing. The resolution of the deadlock by a Russian retreat sends a clear signal about the KLA's ability to control significant developments in Kosovo even when it opposes KFOR.

Although the Russians have retreated from the argument for now, ending the immediate standoff, doubt about the viability of Russia's KFOR involvement remains. The Orahovac case may become an important precedent, boosting the KLA's confidence in dealing with the Russian presence in Kosovo and KFOR. The question we have asked before, is what will the Russians, and potentially the Serbs, do about this setback?

Source: Stratfor Kosovo Crisis Center

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