PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA — AS the sultry summer sun wanes over this crumbling, dust-covered town, Serbian families stroll in quiet conversation along the main street. A short distance away ethnic Albanians meander down another street.
Like almost every facet of life in Serbia's southern Kosovo Province, from health care and education to cafes, playgrounds, and hotels, the capital's traditional evening promenade is segregated.
"I haven't walked down the main street in two years. I don't know what would happen if I did," said Ibrahim Rugova, the head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (DLK), the main party seeking independence for the 2 million mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians.
The chasm reflects the hatreds spawned by Belgrade since 1989 through the apartheid-like repression of ethnic Albanian rights, and through propaganda using the region's bloody history to inflame racism and fan the insecurity of the tiny minority of 200,000 Christian Orthodox Serbs. It was by exploiting the Serbs' fear of loosing what they cherish as the "cradle" of their centuries-old culture and faith that communist President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia consolidated his political power.
At the same time, he unleashed the Serbian nationalist fever that paved the way for the violent collapse of former Yugoslavia. But despite apocalyptic forecasts over what international organizations call one of the worst human rights crises in Europe, Kosovo remains an island of relative, uneasy peace.
Both sides maintain confrontational positions, but within cautious limits, unwilling to propel the other over the brink into the kind of communal violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Milosevic apparently is anxious to avoid the consequences of another war, one that could spill into the restive ethnic Albanian minority in neighboring Macedonia and risk dragging in Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria, all of which harbor historic claims on the region.
It was 603 years ago this Sunday that the invading Ottoman Turks dealt the Serbs the gravest defeat in their history, triggering a series of mass Serbian migrations northward that left Kosovo with its ethnic Albanian majority. `Minimal' force
Still Milosevic employs the minimal amount of force needed to restrain the Albanian secession movement.
On Tuesday, machine-gun toting Serbian police commandos in combat gear backed by an armored personnel carrier sealed off an Islamic education center in Pristina. The aim was to prevent the first meeting of a self-styled parliament chosen by ethnic Albanians May 24 in a secret vote held in dingy back rooms and shops across the province.
"The police are inside the building watching. You had better go," an elderly shopkeeper told a foreign correspondent reflecting the terror instilled in the last year by draconian Serbian rule, beatings, arbitrary arrests and purges of more than 100,000 ethnic Albanians from state institutions enterprises, hospitals schools, and factories.
In their places, Milosevic's regime has shipped into Kosovo hundreds of Serbian bureaucrats, managers, doctors, and teachers, creating what Western diplomats regard as a 19th century colonial administration.
For their part, ethnic Albanian leaders are resolute in their demands for independence. "Things have gone too far," said Mr. Rugova.
But he and others stressed that their drive would remain peaceful, and that they are determined to rely on international pressure and mediation with Serbia to resolve the crisis in their favor.
Ethnic Albanian leaders said that, contrary to Belgrade's assertions, their people lack the weapons to confront the massive Serbian police and Army presence in the province as well as right-wing paramilitary groups and Serbian civilians armed by the regime. Overwhelming force
"You don't go out in the streets against the people who bombed Sarajevo," said Veton Surroi, an ethnic Albanian journalist and head of the tiny liberal Parliamentary Party.
Ethnic Albanian leaders also said they were afraid ttaking to the streets could rescue Milosevic from his domestic challengers by rallying Serbs around him, just as occurred when he dissolved the Kosovo provincial government and assembly two years ago and imposed direct rule from Belgrade. Many ethnic Albanians are pessimistic about chances for change, even under a government of the Serbian opposition, as Serb opposition leaders also vehemently oppose relinquishing Kosovo.
"Neither the government nor the opposition in Serbia have shown any signs of wanting a dialogue without setting conditions," said Muje Rugova, a DLK delegate in the self-styled ethnic Albanian parliament, who was fired as a Pristina University chemistry professor for disloyalty because he refused to teach in the Serbian language.
But he and others concede that ethnic Albanians, particularly the educated youth, are increasingly restless under continued repression, rocketing unemployment, and economic deprivation worsened by the May 30 imposition of UN sanctions against Serbia.
Many ethnic Albanians also believe that Milosevic could decide to provoke a major conflagration at any time if he calculated that it might preserve his uncertain personal political fortunes.
"He may begin to think more about how to save himself," says DLK chief Rugova. "There is no logic in his behavior."