Jovan Bojkovic reached behind the front seat of his Yugo automobile - and pulled out a pistol. ``I never go out without it,'' he says. ``We have to protect our rights.''
Mr. Bojkovic is a Serbian nationalist, and his fearful, potentially violent emotions lie at the heart of the divisive debate which took place Monday and Tuesday in Belgrade at an extraordinary plenum of the Yugoslav Communist Party. Serbians and their hero, Serbian Communist Party chief Slobodan Milosevic, want to regain control of this disputed province of Kosovo, populated by 1.7 million ethnic Albanians and fewer than 200,000 Serbians.
Albanians, along with the northern Slovenes and Croats, are resisting Serbian demands for the resignation of three Albanian leaders from Kosovo.
``These demands are not acceptable,'' Marjan Rozic, a former Slovenian President of Parliament told the Monitor on Tuesday morning. ``We cannot let one nationality dictate personnel changes to another.''
This tension threatens to explode at any moment into outright violence in Kosovo. Talk to any Serbian here and charges of Albanian harassment are played back like a tape-recording. The Albanians slash car tires, one says. They smash house windows, says another. They desecrate Serbian graves, and most of all, they rape Serbian women. Mr. Bojkovic, a notary, refuses to let his 14-year-old daughter leave the house after nightfall.
``The Albanians want to scare us away so they can create an ethnically pure Kosovo,'' he says. ``We won't let them.''
Serbians can document only a handful of concrete cases of persecution. Exaggerated or not, what counts is that they feel overwhelmed.
The Albanian birthrate is the highest in Europe. In many areas of Kosovo, more horses and donkeys use the muddy streets than cars. Economists estimate unemployment at 50 percent, close to four times the national average, and the standard of living index is a seventh of the richest Yugoslav republic, Slovenia.
Ironically, the threat of Serbian domination has pushed Kosovo's poor Albanians into an unlikely alliance with the rich Slovenians. Serbians meanwhile feel more isolated, more threatened - and more determined to recapture Kosovo.
``Our history, our traditions, and our culture are rooted in this place,'' says Radenko Kruca, a Serbian professor at the University of Pristina. ``All we want is to be equal here.''
Kosovo was the heartland of the medieval Serbian nation. Gorgeous monasteries dot the countryside. In 1389, the Turks defeated the Serbians in an epical battle here on the Kosovo Polje plain, and the Serbians only recaptured their land at the end of the 19th century.
When the Serbians returned, they found unwelcome intruders, Albanians who had settled here under Turkish rule. The two groups do not mix well. Serbians are orthodox Catholics; Albanians are Moslem. Serbians are Slavs; Albanians trace their roots to an ancient Illyrian tribe.
The Serbians were the prime moving force behind Yugoslavia's creation in 1918 - and afterwards the dominant nationality. After World War II, Josip Broz Tito, son of a Croat father and Slovene mother, won power and curbed Serbian pretensions by divvying up Serbian territory. Kosovo, and another province Voivodina, were created within the Serbian republic.
It is against this ``injustice'' that Serbians are revolting. On July 2, six Kosovo Polje residents formed a protest committee. They went to Novi Sad and held a demonstration on July 9. The movement struck a responsive chord - the demonstrations spread all over Serbia.
``This is a people's movement,'' claims Bogdan Kecman, one the committee's founders. ``Either we fight or we'll be destroyed.''
The open question is, at what price? A sort of cold-war atmosphere already reigns in Kosovo. Serbian schools have been closed for a month because of alleged Albanian attacks, and at school rallies, Serbian students now shout, ``Give us guns.'' Albanian youngsters retaliate with the same cry.
Jovan Bojkovic plans to take his family Saturday for a rally in Belgrade with Milosevic. He slips the pistol under his jacket. If Serbians are not in control of Kosovo when he returns, he could take action himself.
``It could be civil war,'' he mutters. ``A real disaster.''