Belgrade Turns Back the Clock on Ethnic Albanians

THE Albanian guard examines my special permit to cross the border at this particular point. A Customs officer goes through the motions of ``anything to declare?'' Two men and a woman sit by the roadside looking on. I am the only ``traffic.''

Formalities done, the guard kindly carries my suitcase as far as he is allowed into the ``no man's land'' between Albania and Yugoslavia.

I carry it myself through a ``no go'' strip and a Yugoslav guard takes over. He says I am the fifth traveler to pass in a month.

My car from Prizren, 10 miles into Yugoslavia, is late. So there is time to reflect on the incongruity - and the folly - of a ``dead'' border between two nations of much common culture and mutual economic interest.

Albania seems more concerned than Yugoslavia to ``open'' the border and improve relations. Tirana has certainly showed restraint in a recent response to Belgrade's charges that it is back of Yugoslavia's troubles in its ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo.

The driver taking me to Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, is an ethnic Albanian. (Kosovo has 1.7 million Albanians, some 200,000 Serbs).

Does he have Serbian friends? ``Of course,'' he says. ``My wife is a Serbkina'' (meaning Serbian). Albanian and Serbian families live in their block. He identifies villages and new houses that we passed. ``That's Serb,'' he said. ``Those are Albanian.''

Some of the Albanian houses have walls around them. These are used for drying tobacco but are also traditional ``protection'' for property and women. Such walls are common in Albania.

The Kosovo Serbs resent the walls and make them an issue in the ethnic quarrel. In next-door Macedonia - where Serbs outnumber Albanians 5 to 1 - the authorities even used bulldozers to demolish them. No fewer than 2,000 walls have been destroyed since 1987.

Changes imposed from Belgrade made Serbo-Croatian the dominant language of Kosovo, and gave Serbia control of Kosovo's courts and police, as well as power to choose officials for Kosovo's supposedly independent Communist Party.

In Pristina, the aftermath of recent rioting over reduced autonomy and sentencing of 800 protesters - many for minor offenses - still hangs heavily in the air. In midtown, few police were visible, but mobile anti-riot units waited on alert nearby.

For three nights, the local campus had been sealed off by police to ensure that students could not contact visiting West European parliamentarians from Strasbourg. The MPs wanted to see Kosovo's jailed former party leader, Azem Vlasi, and some of 237 intellectuals ``isolated'' (meaning under house arrest or detained without trial) in the last crackdown on unrest over the constitutional changes.

Officials rebuffed the requests as contrary to ``all norms of international conduct.'' So the MPs declined a government banquet and contrived meetings instead with several proscribed academics and editors.

``The visit was a disaster,'' an official confided glumly.

Mr. Vlasi, an Albanian, has been held without charge since February, allegedly for instigating demonstrations and strikes. The authorities call it ``counterrevolution,'' a piece of Stalinist terminology for opposition rarely heard in Yugoslavia since the 1950s.

Yugoslavia pioneered much of today's glasnost (openness) as well as unequivocal equality among its nationalities. In Kosovo, the clock is turning back.

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