Student Protests Show Again How Ethnic Ties Split Balkans

Albanians in Kosovo region rallied last week against Serb-run schools.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The peaceful student protests that Serbian police brutally broke up last week have focused international attention on Kosovo, one of the most volatile regions in the Balkans.

The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, who make up 90 percent of the population, have faced Serbian repression since 1989, when Serbia gradually ended Kosovo's autonomy and assumed direct administrative control. Kosovo Albanians reacted by boycotting Serbian elections, electing their own "shadow" government, and setting up an independent education system. In September 1996, shadow-state president Ibrahim Rugova and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic signed an agreement returning autonomy to Kosovo's schools. But because the Serbian government still has not implemented the accord, Kosovo Albanian university students took matters into their own hands.

Before Yugoslavia fell apart, Kosovo enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy within the Republic of Serbia. Most Kosovo Albanians hoped that one day they, too, would have a republic in Yugoslavia, on the same level as Slovenia or Croatia. President Milosevic dashed these hopes when he stirred up vicious Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s. Kosovo, the heartland of medieval Serbia, was the key.

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Milosevic claimed Kosovo's Serbs were being subjected to ethnic cleansing by Albanians. In 1989, Milosevic assembled more than a million Serbs outside Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Although the invading Turks defeated the Serbs in the battle and subsequently ruled the Balkans for five centuries, the battle has played a crucial role in Serbian nationalist nostalgia.

Today most Serbs share these emotional ties to Kosovo. Milosevic has attempted to "Serbify" Kosovo by resettling 15,000 Serb refugees from Croatia, but few Serbs would voluntarily choose to live in Serbia's poorest region.

For Kosovo Albanians, there is no sign that a change of government in Serbia would affect their plight. Vuk Draskovic, the charismatic leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, said during the just concluded presidential election campaign that Kosovo should get back what he says is its historical name, "Old Serbia." Serbian Radical Party candidate Vojislav Seselj, who claimed victory in Sunday's presidential vote, has suggested he would expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to neighboring Albania. In the 250-member Serbian parliament, Kosovo has 42 seats. But all of them are held by Milosevic's Socialists and extremist parties.

"At least the previous level of acquired rights has to be reinstated," says Gazmend Pula, an Albanian human rights activist in Kosovo. Mr. Pula says that most ethnic Albanians would be satisfied if Kosovo became a federal republic on equal footing with Serbia.

But impatience in the Albanian community is rising. Many Kosovo Albanians question whether shadow president Rugova's passive resistance is the correct way to deal with Milosevic. After all, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia all achieved independence through war.

Last week's student demonstrations in seven Kosovo cities merely demanded that the Rugova-Milosevic education agreement be implemented. For seven years, Kosovo's Albanian high school and university students have attended classes in private homes. "Many people say that in an educational sense," a separate, parallel education system is "a disaster," says Denisa Kostovic, a Kosovo expert based at Cambridge University in England. "But it is important because it socialized people into the Albanian community."

Ethnic Albanians in Pristina supported the students by turning out in the streets and preventing an escalation of violence. But for the past year, a mysterious organization calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has led attacks on Serbian police stations and ethnic Albanian "collaborators."

The group has claimed responsibility for 18 killings this year. Some political analysts in Pristina and Belgrade say that UCK is an invention of the Serbian leadership to justify cracking down on Albanians. Others say it is likely some attacks were the work of radical Albanians, while the rest were carried out by Serb agents provocateurs.

The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, Elisabeth Rehn, warns that growing frustration with Serbian intransigence could plunge Kosovo into "a real explosion ... even civil war." Ms. Rehn contrasts Western Europe's lack of attention to Kosovo with the more active involvement of the United States. This year, Rugova has met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and US special envoys John Kornblum and Robert Gelbard.

Last year, while the State Department was closing more than 40 US Information Service offices abroad, just one new one opened - in Pristina.

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