Serbs Shrug Off West's Threats And Hunker Down on Kosovo

Tomorrow, Contact Group meets to discuss sanctions. But Milosevic may have ways to counter them all.

Sitting at a cluttered desk behind a typewriter and piles of unfinished paperwork, a Serbian official laughs as he discusses the international community's recent efforts to broker a peace in Kosovo.

"These sanctions they threaten us with, they are a big mistake," says the official, who is forbidden to speak with the press and asks to remain anonymous. "The international community showed they know nothing of Kosovo."

Serbian and Albanian political leaders signed an agreement yesterday to end a dispute that has kept ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo's state school and university system for seven years. But despite the minor compromise, Albanian leaders continued to boycott talks with a Serbian government team in Pristina.

As diplomats urge talks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, the Serbs appear to be more defiant than ever. Slobodan Milosevic is the president of Yugoslavia, which includes the province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians far outnumber Serbs.

American envoy to the Balkans Robert Gelbard has told Mr. Milosevic to initiate negotiations with ethnic Albanian leaders through secret diplomacy. Milosevic has offered invitations through the media.

The so-called Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia - the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, Italy, and France - has asked Milosevic to remove special police units from Kosovo. But tanks and armored personnel carriers remain in view.

And as international observers rush to Kosovo, the Serbs have begun an apparent crackdown on foreigners in the region, where a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population is calling for independence.

On Saturday, three members of the US Congress were turned away from Kosovo at the border with Macedonia, and five members of the San Francisco-based activist group Peaceworkers were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail.

"This is not helpful at a time of such crisis between our governments," says Richard Miles, the American charg d'affairs in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

The US has an "outer wall" of sanctions in place, preventing Yugoslavia from receiving international loans and participating in international governing bodies.

The activists were arrested because they had not registered their place of residence with the police within three days of arrival in Kosovo's provincial capital of Pristina, as required by Yugoslav law. The Peaceworkers arrived in Kosovo before March 13 and were working with student leaders organizing demonstrations.

The members of Congress - Reps. Sue Kelly (R) and Eliot Engel (D) of New York., and James Moran (D) of Virginia - were traveling with 11 others and did not have the Yugoslav visas required for Americans to enter the country.

Throughout the month-long crisis in Kosovo, the Serbs have resisted international mediation, saying Kosovo is an internal problem. They have justified attacks on villages in the region of Drenica as necessary to contain the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army, which they say is a terrorist organization targeting police. But among those killed during the crackdowns were women and children.

The US and other Western powers counter that Kosovo is an international problem because the violence could spread.

Russia has sided with Milosevic, making it hard for the US to impose sanctions. According to diplomats in the region, Russia compares Kosovo to Chechnya, the secessionist region in Russia.

The Contact Group is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss sanctions against Serbia. But none of the measures under consideration has the Serbs scared, the government official says.

An arms embargo would not hurt Yugoslavia, they say, because it is already well stocked with weapons and could level Kosovo in 48 hours. Another threat, to restrict the movement of Serbian officials, is irrelevant. "We could issue them new passports with new names," the official says.

A third threat, to freeze Yugoslav finances abroad, may actually work in its favor, the official says, because interest on $22 million in debts would be frozen.

During the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, United Nations sanctions blocked Serbs from international commerce, giving rise to a dominant black market. The country's ruling elite was hardly affected.

New sanctions would have to be approved by the UN Security Council, where China holds veto power. China has what it considers a secessionist region, Tibet, and would likely side with Yugoslavia.

"It's ... hard to come up with things that will work," says a Western analyst in the Balkans. "There's not much we can do. Besides, Serbia is getting used to sanctions."

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