Yugoslavia at a Crossroads

DAILY reports out of Yugoslavia paint a somber picture of economic, political, and nationality problems facing the country. Capturing major attention, at least among foreign observers, is a nationality problem that appears to have no ready answer. Yet around it all other problems revolve. It concerns the country's Albanian minority, about 2 million in a total population of about 23 million. Over 70 percent of the Yugoslav Albanians live in the province of Kosovo, where they are an overwhelming majority. Therein lies the problem.

Kosovo has several attributes. First, it borders Albania, for which Kosovo Albanians have a strong attraction. Despite the fact that economically and in some other ways they are better off in Yugoslavia, they have sought to Albanize Kosovo. They have imported teachers and textbooks from Albania. The Yugoslav authorities see subversion in some of this.

A second attribute of Kosovo is that the Kosovo Albanians have sought to make Kosovo ethnically pure. To that end they have engaged in brutal persecution of the Serbian minority (20 percent of the population) to force them to leave Kosovo.

The third attribute of Kosovo is that it is an autonomous province within the Republic of Serbia. Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian nation, home of its cultural and religious monuments. In medieval times, Kosovo was ethnically Serbian. The few Albanians were mainly Christians and lived in harmony with the Serbs. For most Serbs, Kosovo is holy ground.

Fourth, in 1389 the Ottoman Turks fought for Kosovo - and stayed for nearly 500 years. Hence, the percentage of Serbs in Kosovo decreased. This was due in large part to the actions of Albanians who converted to Islam and who over the centuries acted in accord with Turkish occupiers.

A fifth attribute of Kosovo is that in the past 75 years it has passed through several historical phases. In the Balkan wars (1912), Kosovo was liberated from the Turks and returned to a by-then independent Serbia. But Serbia's presence in Kosovo was short-lived, because of her defeat by the central powers in World War I.

When the new Yugoslav state was created in 1918, the region was not top priority. The government's agrarian reform - taking lands from the wealthy Turks and giving it to Albanians and to Serbian veterans - did not satisfy the Albanians.

When Mussolini conquered Albania in 1939, he allowed pro-Italian Albanians to form a Great Albania, including Kosovo, that forced thousands of Serbs to flee. The situation was aggravated by Kosovo Albanians who formed a pro-Nazi regiment.

In the meantime, the leader of the Yugoslav Communist Partisans, Josip Broz Tito, offered the Kosovo Albanians self-determination (meaning that they could join Albania) if they would assist him in his struggle for power. They did not take the bait, but in the end Tito gave them an autonomous province within the Republic of Serbia. Moreover he allowed 100,000 Albanians to immigrate to Kosovo. He forbade, however, Serbs to return to their homes after the war.

The story of Kosovo in the Tito years was one of attempted Albanization. By 1981, however, Kosovo Albanians began demonstrating for the status of a republic and the right to be annexed to Albania.

After the demonstrations were put down in some bloodshed, the details of Kosovo Albanian actions against the Serbian minority began to see the light of day - desecration of churches and cemeteries, pillaging and burning towns and farms, and killing livestock.

In 1987 the newly elected head of the Serbian communists, Slobodan Milosevic, made a trip to Kosovo and heard many of the Serbian complaints in person. Subsequently, he promised justice to the Serbian minority. To the Albanian majority he in effect said: Your rights will be fully respected, but we count on you to be constructive, loyal citizens of Yugoslavia.

During 1988, Milosevic, using his considerable oratorical skills, exploited the Kosovo issue to gain widespread popularity in his native Serbia, as well as among Serbs in Montenegro and the autonomous province of Vojvodina. As a result the leaders in both of the latter were replaced by persons inclined to Milosevic. Even Serbs who are not communists approve of what he has done so far. They point out that since he came to power, Serbs have been permitted to voice their grievances and to give expression to their aspirations.

In early 1989, Milosevic got agreement from the Kosovo political leadership to amend the Serbian constitution so that Serbia would have some control over the autonomous province, which had been acting as if it were sovereign. Specifically, Serbia gained control over administration, the police, and the courts.

Most Yugoslav observers see this as a temporary solution. But is there a more lasting one? When a few years ago I asked Yugoslavia's best known dissident, Milovan Djilas, what is the solution to Kosovo, he replied: ``There is none.'' To the suggestion from some Yugoslavs that they cede part of Kosovo to Albania, most Serbs reply indignantly, ``Never!'' And will the Kosovo Albanians, who have employed every known tactic to force the Serbs out of Kosovo, be satisfied? Hardly.

Milosevic's successes and his demands that the Yugoslav constitution be amended have led to fears in some republics, notably Slovenia and Croatia, that Milosevic seeks Serbian domination and that he has ambitions to become another Tito. Just as Milosevic has exploited the Kosovo issue in Serbian areas, the Slovenian and Croatian leaders have exploited that same issue to spread fears of Serbian domination.

What does Milosevic want? He says he wants equality for Serbia. He asserts that he does not want to dominate other republics. But he also says that Yugoslavia's economic woes can't be managed without political change. He wants to do away with the present constitutional provision requiring unanimity among the republics in important decisions. He doesn't like the proviso that small republics have the same representation in the parliament as larger ones.

Discussions of constitutional changes are proceeding apace throughout Yugoslavia, and some decisions are expected by year's end. In the meantime, Yugoslav citizens can only wait and hope.

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