Unfinished business in Balkans

Two years after NATO intervened in Kosovo, experts say its unresolved status fuels dreams of a 'greater Albania.'

When then-President Clinton ordered NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces in Kosovo two years ago tomorrow, he vowed that military action would "prevent a wider war."

But as ethnic-Albanian rebels face off against government troops in northern Macedonia, there is a growing realization that unfinished business from the Kosovo conflict is fueling this new Balkan war.

Pointing to a deepening of the crisis - which could prove to be President Bush's first major foreign-policy test - bombardment of rebel positions resumed yesterday, after a government ultimatum demanding the guerrillas lay down their arms expired.

"This can get more serious than any other [Yugoslav war] we have seen in the last 10 years," says Ivo Daalder, author of "Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo" and a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "If we haven't learned one lesson after 10 years, of [the need for] intervening early, then we haven't learned anything."

But the prevailing mood against action in Washington means that "very likely we will intervene as in Bosnia: very late, at high cost, and long term," Mr. Daalder says.

The deja vu starts with the symbols of the rebels. The red-and-black shoulder patch, with the two-headed eagle, and the Albanian-language acronym for their troops, UCK, is the same used by their Kosovo Albanian brothers two years ago.

Moreover, many are veterans of that war, in which NATO's 78-day air campaign forced Serbian-led Yugoslav troops to end an ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo.

While 20,000 NATO-led peacekeepers - some 5,600 of them American - still patrol Kosovo, rebel dreams of independence remain unfulfilled.

"There is an epic misunderstanding on the part of the guerrillas," says Mark Thompson, head of the Balkans program at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "They saw the 1999 NATO operation as pro-Albanian, and interpreted it through the nationalist lens as proof that NATO signed on to the Albanian agenda."

But times have changed. Washington has declared that it will not commit more troops to the Balkans, and the UN Security Council and European Union officials - like the government in Skopje - condemn the rebels as "terrorists."

That turnaround from the heady days of the 1999 campaign - when Kosovo rebel spotters even helped call in NATO airstrikes on Serbian positions by radio - hasn't sunk in with rebels here.

Guerrilla commanders contend that "the world is with us," and that it understands calls by the ethnic Albanians - who are a one-third minority in Macedonia - for equal rights.

"Now there is a myth of Albanian victory in Kosovo - they beat the Serbs, and that is very potent," says Mr. Thompson. Even more dangerous, he says, may be the West's "refusal" to resolve Kosovo's final status. "That keeps open the fear - to use nationalistic terms - that Kosovo may again be open to bondage by Serbia," Thompson says. "From their point of view, they are not quite safe.

That is how many ethnic Albanian civilians felt, as they prepared for renewed government shelling in rebel-held villages Wednesday. They rushed to safe cellars and shuttered shop fronts with wooden boards. The 10-or-so-strong Haruni family in Shipkovica, with bits of hay stuck in their sweaters, lay down plastic and straw to sleep on their concrete floor.

The Kosovo intervention, NATO officials promised, was to erase such scenes from the Balkans, after a tumultuous decade of ethnic conflict ripped through Croatia and Bosnia, and then Kosovo.

Still more war than peace

But two years on, after refugees yesterday increasingly fled targeted villages, images show more war than peace - and the risk of escalation is high.

Still, the Albanian question is the last remaining one in the Balkans - and "since Kosovo, [Albanian hard-liners] have learned how to use leverage" for their demands on the West, says Michael Roskin, a Balkan expert at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. The claim for rights is the "cover story" for the insurgents, he says, "or is that the opening wedge into Greater Albania?"

Such a "Greater Albania" did exist briefly under Italian rule during World War II, he notes. It included Kosovo, parts of Montenegro and northwest Macedonia, and Albania. "A lot of Albanians thought that state was a good fit," Mr. Roskin says.

Rebel support increases

While support for the rebel cause appears to be rising here, fear over the town of Shipkovica, a rebel-controlled town in the hills behind Tetovo, is palpable.

"This population has a real difficulty resisting bombardment," says Mayor Zulqufli Ajuazi. "The bombs are coming from the Macedonian military - we think they are out of order, and beyond civilized rules."

"More than 90 percent of the people decided to stay, because we don't have a corridor out," says Najo, a resident, noting that the Kosovo border is a 12-hour walk away over snow-capped mountains. "We are not terrorists. We're just ordinary people in our villages," he says, before an UCK rebel dressed all in black intervenes, and tells him not to give any more information.

The point was made clearer by a young, English-speaking rebel who came down from a trench near Shipkovica. "If they know exactly that their [army] grenade will kill a soldier, we are not against it. We are ready to fight," says the rebel, a law student who calls himself Dan.

That may also be part of a cynical rebel strategy, however, drawn from the Kosovo experience. Rebels in 1999 sometimes launched attacks that would inevitably - some say deliberately - result in Yugoslav troop retaliation against civilians.

"That lesson was well learned," Roskin says. "If you can get a 'good' massacre, it can energize your cause."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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