Kosovo's Secret Vote Could Be Flashpoint For Balkan Conflict

SERBS, Greeks, and Bulgarians have quarreled over territory ever since two bitter Balkan wars ended domination by the Ottoman Turks on the eve of World War I.

Today, in the perilous situation created by Serbia's seizure (by its own claims) of half of the old Yugoslavia's territory into a new "greater Serbia," the possibility of a third war in the region looms larger every day.

A likely immediate flashpoint is Kosovo, home to nearly 2 million Albanians in southern Serbia. The suppressed Albanian opposition plans on holding a clandestine election there Sunday that could easily nudge the threat to the brink of conflict.

International attention has been so riveted on the tumult in Bosnia-Herzegovina that this intended election has gone un-noticed. The potential result of the Serbs' complete partitioning of this multicultured central republic has yet to be taken into serious account.

Without a doubt, diplomats in Belgrade said Tuesday, worse times are ahead. Macedonia and Kosovo may both soon become the ultimate victims of Serbia's grand design unless the international response stirs beyond verbal expressions of displeasure and formalities like recalling ambassadors.

Kosovo is already a Serb "police" precinct, with abuse of human rights matching the worst in the former communist states. A Belgrade Helsinki Watch lawyer said recently: "The Albanians are not treated like people." But resistance is growing.

Two years ago, when Serbia rescinded the autonomy given Kosovo in 1974, members of its democratically elected legislature and government who eluded arrest went underground.

Since then, from domestic "exile," they have drafted a future republican constitution and won virtually complete Albanian support in an equally clandestine referendum on independence. It also appealed for European Community and United Nations approval, like that accorded earlier to Croatia and Slovenia, but met with negligible response.

A million more Albanians live outside the province, making them the third largest ethnic group in former Yugoslavia, outnumbered only by Serbs and Croats. Yet they were accorded only "nationality" status and denied the republican and "nation" standing enjoyed by the far fewer Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and the Muslim majority in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Serbs say the Albanians are separatists who want to join Albania. If this is so now, it is only because of their ill-treatment by the Serbs. Until recently the Albanians wanted only equality.

Increasingly, however, under the Serb "iron fist" and still more since the emergence of a democratic Albania, the Kosovars' thinking has turned widely to the idea of union.

The Serbs ruthlessly dismantled any vestige of a functioning Albanian society in Kosovo, not only by eliminating any role or voice in administration, but in curbs on the Albanian language in official public usage and sweeping manipulation of the educational curriculum to serve the interests of Serb history.

Despite this environment and thousands of arrests, the underground opposition has steadily gathered strength. When the authorities sacked 6,000 Albanian teachers last year, for example, 400,000 students spontaneously stayed home until the teachers could set up ad hoc "private" schools.

Similar organization went into the underground Democratic League's preparation for Sunday's election.

It has mapped 100 constituencies, each with 10,000 voters and a "choice" of parliament member and president.

Churches, graveyards, and pubs are earmarked as "polling stations." The League's youth forum will patrol the precincts on watch for a police descent.

The Serb authorities say it is illegal and "will not be allowed." They may decide on a new preemptive crackdown.

But it may not be so easy this time, with Serbia a completely isolated pariah in an otherwise democratic Europe.

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