Young and restless in Kosovo - all dressed up and nowhere to go

A scorching summer day had slipped into early evening, deliciously cooled by the city's altitude. Every table on the long terrace of the Grand Hotel and in the spacious cafe inside was occupied by local youths.

''Why are they all here?'' I asked a young Albanian.

''Because,'' he said, ''there is nowhere else for them to go.''

Yet only a few minutes' walk away was the towering youth center, hurriedly finished after ethnic riots in 1981 in which young Albanians were the most prominent demonstrators.

In a gesture of brotherhood it is named after two wartime partisan heroes, one Albanian, the other Serb. It has a clothing store, conference rooms, concerts, team sports, and small games.

But it is too big and its look is cheerless. Everything but the shop was closed. For the youth, relaxation was at the small tables at the Grand Hotel.

Youth here, in fact, symbolize the generational changes that have taken place in what has historically been the most poverty-stricken and neglected region of Balkan Yugoslavia.

One striking change involves the corso, the Balkan custom of reserving the main street to pedestrians in the evening so that people - predominantly the young - may stroll up and down with their friends. Traditionally, there was little else to do.

Years after World War II, girls and young women still followed the custom by wearing richly embroidered national dress, with strings of beads and silver and sometimes gold coins and ornaments around their necks. These represented a marriage dowry, designed by parents to catch the eye of some eligible suitor.

The evening corso is still observed. But neither national dress nor the dowries is displayed anymore.

Instead, the street is filled with chattering and laughing girls in colorful slacks, shorts, or jeans, and halter tops and shirts.

And segregation, with the sexes walking separately, is no more.

This spectacle supports official claims that much has been done for the welfare of Kosovo and its mainly Albanian population.

But the sense that Kosovo is still disadvantaged in relation to the rest of Yugoslavia resulted in violence in the spring of 1981.

Student agitation for an independent Kosovo republic - and more extreme demands for actual union between Kosovo and Albania - stung the Belgrade government into charging that Albania was behind the demand.

In the ensuing years, hundreds of ethnic Albanians have been arrested.

Under Yugoslavia's Constitution, Kosovo is an autonomous and largely self-governed province within Serbia, the biggest of the republics. Eighty percent of its population of 11/2 million are ethnic Albanians whose language was prohibited before the war, under the Serb monarchy.

Shefqet Jashari, a pleasant, middle-aged member of the province's presidency, recalls that at the end of World War II more than 90 percent of the population was illiterate. The region had no roads and few schools. It offered little public health care. Most of the people earned their living from primitive agriculture, and industry was limited to the once British-owned Trepca lead mines and a few archaic factories.

''We started with zero development,'' he says. ''Today we have 200,000 workers in the public industry sector, living space is now eight meters per capita (three times what it was in 1939), we have 1,200 doctors and 6,000 auxiliary workers in medicare, and fully adequate educational systems for a literate population...''

Since the 1950s, Kosovo has, in fact, received some 40 percent of a federal Development Fund devised to aid the country's least developed areas.

Together with World Bank credits specifically targeted on Kosovo, a billion dollars has been invested annually in local development.

There is much to show for it. All but a fringe of old Pristina - and of other major towns - has disappeared under urban improvement.

The city has a university with 40,000 students which, ironically, within a decade of construction was the smoldering hotbed of the 1981 unrest.

The ''boom,'' however, was largely on the surface. Behind all the high-rise building was the accumulated consequences of unproductive investment, and the resultant increasing lag behind the rest of the country.

Kosovo unemployment now is about 21/2 times the Yugoslav average. Seventy percent of the jobless rate consists of graduate students and youth under 25.

Local feelings exploded finally in 1981's confused outburst of economic grievance and violent national emotions demanding an equal ''Kosovo republic.'' The open agitation was quashed by the toughest security action Yugoslavia had seen since the war.

Today, in bright summer, everything here looks normal. The authorities claim to have the situation firmly under control.

There have been no major demonstrations for the past two years.

But Mr. Jashari will only speak of the possibility of a more ''open'' atmosphere in Kosovo and between the provinces and the rest of Yugoslavia. It would seem to be the best that can be said.

Leaflets continue to appear and there are still minor acts of sabotage.

These, together with the recent flurry of nationalist trials and the severe sentences imposed in such cases, all suggest that there are still emotions to be played upon in the underground.

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