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Will Serbs Fight for Kosovo?

Militants still vow to keep restive province. But others doubt motives of Milosevic.

By Justin BrownSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 1998



BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA

Uros Romic doesn't like ethnic Albanians. But he doesn't want to go to war with them.

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As a draft-age Serb, Mr. Romic might be asked to fight if war breaks out in the Serbian province of Kosovo, where a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population is calling for independence. He'd rather stay home.

"I don't like the Albanian people," he says after lunch at a McDonald's in downtown Belgrade. "We are two different religions, two different nations. There can never be love between us. But this is not a fight in the interest of the Serbian people, it's a fight in the interest of [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic."

Romic typifies a paradoxical view that many Serbs have toward Kosovo. He says Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian culture, but he has never been there. He says he hates Mr. Milosevic, but he sometimes echoes the Yugoslav president's nationalist rhetoric. He says the international community should not meddle in Serbian affairs, but he yearns for the spoils of Western integration.

Amid reports of new violence March 17, foreign diplomats moved into the region. For Serbs, questions continued to swirl.

"The whole story of Kosovo is the story of a myth that's been enrooted in our children's knowledge since primary school," says Tamara Stajner-Popovic, a psychoanalyst in Belgrade. "But I'm not sure how true it is."

Ms. Stajner-Popovic says the Serbs suffer from a dilemma in which nationalism is pitted against modern pragmatism. And the latter is beginning to win.

"The idealism is over," she says. "The ... atmosphere is that nobody is prepared to die for Kosovo - or any sort of war."

But for some it's too late. Attacks carried out by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army were met with brutal police crackdowns in the central Kosovo region of Drenica two weeks ago. At least four Serbian policemen and at least 80 ethnic Albanians, including women and children, have been killed so far.

Drenica remains sealed off and, according to local reports, two more ethnic Albanians were killed there late last week.

International observers fear that war in Kosovo could have a domino effect in the Balkans, where almost every border is considered unstable and almost every country has a restive ethnic minority.

A United Nations peacekeeping force, including several hundred US troops, remains in neighboring Macedonia, and US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was due to visit Macedonia March 17 as part of a tour of five Balkan states.

As the crisis in Kosovo enters its third week, Serbs and ethnic Albanians still have yet to begin talks on the future of the troubled region, which has a population of 2 million. The Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia gave Serbia a March 25 deadline to act - or face enhanced international sanctions.

Although the Serbs have several times sent delegations to Kosovo to talk - including an offer March 17 - the ethnic Albanians have so far refused, saying the offers were not undertaken in an internationally acceptable manner.

Even Russia, which to date has been Serbia's strongest supporter, is urging the Serbs to grant the ethnic Albanians the kind of autonomy they had before Milosevic stripped it way in 1989, whipping up nationalist fervor in the process. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was expected to arrive in Belgrade March 17 to meet with Milosevic.

Meanwhile, Milosevic has launched a media campaign accusing the United States of "siding with Albanian separatism and terrorism."

According to Dejan Anastasijevic, a political writer covering Kosovo for the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme, the Milosevic crackdown and the propaganda are old Milosevic tricks.

"He bangs his fists ... and says he won't go to the negotiating table," says Mr. Anastasijevic. "Then some people get killed, and he says it's time to make a deal."

Zoran Djindjic, the president of the Serbian Democratic Party, says the problems of Serbia are far greater than Kosovo, making a resolution of the conflict almost impossible to carry out.

"There are no institutions to guarantee any kind of relationship between Serbia and the ethnic Albanians," says Mr. Djindjic. "Milosevic is destroying those institutions so there cannot be any negotiations."

But many Serbs appear to be catching on to Milosevic's tactic. Mira Todorovic, who runs a Belgrade convenience store, says Kosovo is a game to Milosevic, with the object of keeping power.

"Milosevic was strongest during the war," she says. "After that, when the sanctions were over, his position started to weaken. He needs more problems to stay in power."

Still, Ms. Todorovic clings to the Kosovo legend, making reference to a battle fought more than 600 years ago and grimacing as she calls ethnic Albanians "terrorists."

"We gave our lives in Kosovo defending Europe from the Muslims," she says, referring to the Battle of Kosovo Polje, in which the Turks overran the Serbs and began a 500-year occupation. "It's our land and we must keep it."