Forcing Serb Hand on Kosovo

A freeze on foreign funding could keep Milosevic from paying his army. The US's star negotiator is now in Belgrade.

Crouched behind a makeshift bunker, a machine gun slung around his neck, a young Serbian policeman surveys the wasteland this tiny village in western Kosovo has become.

He sees boarded-up houses, walls pocked with bullet holes, and dead horses. He sees a family scrounging through debris. But it is what he doesn't see that scares him.

"The [Kosovo Liberation Army] is everywhere," he says, referring to the ethnic Albanian guerrillas who have taken up arms to fight for independence for the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. "We can't see them, but we know they're here."

As the crisis in Kosovo enters its third month, violence burns through the countryside as if swept by the wind. This, observers say, could become the next Balkans war.

Diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Kosovo have so far failed. US diplomat to the Balkans Richard Holbrooke, who helped broker the 1995 Dayton peace agreement ending the Bosnian war, met with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade Saturday. And pressure is building. The Serbs now face a freeze on foreign investment, the strongest sanction they've seen since the Bosnian war.

Such tougher moves by the international community may well force the Serb leader's hand. "Now Milosevic has to do something," says Ognjen Pribicevic, a political analyst at Belgrade University. "He's run out of money and it will be difficult for him to manage the situation in Belgrade."

"He has made it clear he does not want international mediation in the Kosovo problem," Mr. Holbrooke told reporters in Pristina.

Despite warnings from the six-nation Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia, officials in Belgrade have refused to enter internationally mediated talks with ethnic Albanian leaders.

They say Kosovo is an internal problem to be dealt with on Serbian terms. Only Russia has so far supported the Serbian position.

For the past few years the Serbian economy, which produces almost nothing, has survived by selling off parts of state utilities, such as the telephone company. The electric and oil companies were slated to go next. With sanctions, the Serbs will have trouble paying pensioners and state workers - even the Army.

A real war?

Meanwhile, diplomatic observers say Kosovo is no longer just the site of disgruntled villagers launching hit-and-run attacks on Serbian police stations - it has become a low-level guerrilla battlefield.

"For the first time we see the KLA fighting for strategic positions," says a Western observer in the Balkans. "This is a significant change."

Kosovar Albanians, who outnumber Serbs 9 to 1, overwhelmingly favor independence. They too have been stubborn in approaching the negotiating table. Their official policy of passive resistance has given way to the guerrilla tactics of the KLA.

Although the strength of the KLA is still unknown, it seems to have a vast support system of armed villagers who move easily though the remote countryside. They are believed to be receiving arms from neighboring Albania, where arms stocks were looted last year during civil unrest.

On Saturday, there was fighting as close as 20 miles from the provincial capital of Pristina.

The Albanian border area around Ponosevac remains tense after three days of shooting, with both sides struggling for control.

Sporadic violence continues in the central region of Drenica, where a Feb. 28 police crackdown killed about 80 ethnic Albanians - including women and children.

The Serbian police and the Yugoslav Army also appear to be building their numbers around the northern town of Podujevo, which is believed to be another rebel stronghold.

In the past three months, more than 150 ethnic Albanians and close to a dozen Serbian policemen have been killed. The count grows almost daily.

Serbs may lack motivation

Although Serbian police and Yugoslav military forces number close to 140,000, they seem unprepared for a prolonged guerrilla conflict. Many are underequipped, and - being conscripts from northern Serbia - are unmotivated to fight.

"I just want to go home to Belgrade and see my girlfriend," says one policeman at a checkpoint just outside Pristina.

Milo Djukanovic, the pro-Western president of Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up postwar Yugoslavia, has said he will not send Montenegrins to fight in Kosovo.

Saying the crisis can be prevented through diplomacy, he has distanced himself from Milosevic.

KLA gains support

The question remains, however, of whether the KLA can be stopped - even if negotiations begin. The group has popular support both within the region and among influential ethnic Albanian populations abroad.

During protests in Pristina, ethnic Albanian demonstrators used to chant "Ru-go-va," the name of their shadow president, Ibrahim Rugova.

On Saturday they chanted "U-Ch-K," the Albanian-language initials for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

A moderate's power

"The Serbs are forcing us to become violent," says Ibrahim Matani, as he and about 20,000 other ethnic Albanians marched through Pristina.

Nevertheless, Mr. Rugova remains enormously popular in the villages, where most of the province's 2 million people live.

"The people in the country will do exactly what Rugova says," claims an analyst in the Balkans. "I think there would be a pretty dramatic change [in KLA activity] if he said, 'No more.' "

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