The Players in Kosovo Face-Off

Albright won support vs. Serb strongman yesterday. How will Milosevic counter?

He has defied the leaders of the world, refused to approach the negotiating table, and acted with alarming brutality.

But Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may be the only person who can restore peace in Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia with a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population that is calling for independence.

Mr. Milosevic, a shrewd politician who has survived war, sanctions, and massive protests, has proved to be willing to sink deeper into international isolation as long as he can keep power.

In a crackdown last week, Serb police killed more than 50 ethnic Albanians.

And in London yesterday, the six members of the Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia reacted with a draft agreement on new political measures by several international organizations.

At press time, the Russian delegate to the talks was not in agreement on several specific actions. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had pressed for tough measures to force Milosevic to open a dialogue on Kosovo autonomy.

"It's ethnic cleansing all over again," an American official quoted Ms. Albright as telling ministers of the Contact Group, representing Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and the United States.

The Serbs had been justifying their attacks as necessary to crush an ethnic Albanian terrorist organization known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Albright has also voiced US concerns that the Kosovo conflict could spill over into neighboring countries, eventually drawing in Greece and Turkey on opposite sides - with serious repercussions for NATO, of which both countries are members. A UN peacekeeping force, including American troops, is already in place in neighboring Macedonia.

Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated yesterday in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, but Serb police did not intervene. In the Kosovo villages of Klina and Istok, however, demonstrators reportedly were met with tear gas.

Playing off others' moves?

Last week's crackdown was the first significant move Milosevic has made in Kosovo in almost a decade, since he stripped the region of its autonomy and fueled a wave of nationalism that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Although Milosevic has yet to reveal his long-term plan for Kosovo, he appears to be playing off missteps from the international community.

"He's not acting alone, that I'm absolutely sure of," says Ognjen Pribicevic, a political scientist at Belgrade University. "He's coordinating his plan with US diplomacy."

At the center of the Kosovo issue for the moment is the KLA, about which surprisingly little is known. Although the KLA certainly exists, experts in the region are not sure of its size. Some say it's highly organized, with a central chain of command, a sizable stock of weapons, and soldiers numbering in the thousands. Others say it's a loose confederation of disgruntled ethnic Albanians acting independently of each other, with one Switzerland-based group taking all the credit.

According to Professor Pribicevic and other analysts in Belgrade, Milosevic got what he saw as a green light to act in Kosovo in late February, when the US, which traditionally has taken a strong stance against terrorism, labeled the KLA as "terrorists."

"[The KLA] is without any question a terrorist group," said US envoy to the Balkans Robert Gelbard. "I refuse to accept any kind of excuses."

Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, says the crackdown was also justified by false media reports, some of which were generated by the Serbian government.

"[The KLA] was exaggerated by the media, creating the perception that the Albanians have a national army," she says, adding that the consequence was last week's killing of ethnic Albanians who were clearly not terrorists.

Serbia completed the crackdown against the KLA Sunday. It remains to be seen what Milosevic will do next. But once again, he appears to be tailoring his moves to match US statements calling for dialogue between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

State television has begun broadcasting "man on the street" interviews, in which a journalist asks an ordinary Serb what should be done about the Kosovo crisis. Increasingly, the "man on the street" is suggesting that the government initiate negotiations with Albanian leaders.

Vesna Vujic, a former state media employee who is now the political editor for the independent daily Nasa Borba, says this is a clear sign that Milosevic is creating a new public opinion that will allow him to shift his stance and enter talks.

Milosevic has previously refused to discuss issues of greater autonomy or independence for Kosovo, which he says is the cradle of Serbian culture.

"These are not random interviews," Ms. Vujic says. "They are carefully selected."

According to Vujic, negotiations will inevitably lead to Milosevic granting Kosovo greater autonomy. However, he will keep Kosovo within Yugoslav borders, just as the international community requires.

Limits of autonomy

But creating an autonomous Kosovo is only a temporary solution to the problem, analysts say. Recent violence, which has been simmering for years, suggests that ethnic Albanians and Serbs cannot live together in Yugoslavia.

This has been emphasized by Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the ethnic Albanians, who has called for complete independence.

"Neither side can accept autonomy in the long run," says Nenad Canak, the president of a prodemocracy political party in Novi Sad.

Mr. Canak says the only logical step - which may be many years in the works - is something more drastic than autonomy, such as a partitioning of Kosovo similar to that of Bosnia, where there is a Serb entity and a Muslim-Croat federation.

Lending credibility to that theory are the Serbs' nationalist fears that they will be outnumbered in Yugoslavia by ethnic Albanians in 20 years. Ethic Albanians in Kosovo, with a population of 2 million, have one of Europe's highest birth rates; the Serbs have one of the lowest. Yugoslavia's current population is an estimated 10.6 million.

Some nationalist Serbs support a partition as the only way to keep a population advantage over the ethnic Albanians. Under that theory, the Serbs would be able to keep their Orthodox monasteries, monuments to the Serbian kingdom at the height of its power in the 14th century. The ethnic Albanians, who are mostly Muslim, could possibly unite with the neighboring country of Albania.

"Judging from history, nationalism will be Milosevic's solution," Canak says. "Whoever is not on his side will be called a traitor."

* Material from wire services was used in preparing this article.

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