Kosovo Province: Balkans' Next Flash Point?

Ethnic tensions are high in this formerly autonomous province of Serbia, where majority Albanians feel the boot of nationalist Serb militias and look to the West to prevent all-out conflict. YUGOSLAV LEGACY.

TWO years ago, Muhavet Hamati was a junior lecturer at the University of Pristina - teaching during the day and writing a dissertation on British novelist E. M. Forster at night.

That now seems like another lifetime - before the 1990 state of emergency in Kosovo, when Mr. Hamati, 843 Albanian professors, and all 20,000 Albanian students were forcibly dismissed.

Since then, some of the most hostile policies of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic - short of "ethnic cleansing" - have been used against the Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population of Kosovo, the symbolic heartland of Serbian identity. (See story, right.)

When diplomats look on the map for the next Balkan flash point, this is where their finger falls. Tensions have been high in the province since 1989, when Serbia stripped Kosovo of the autonomy it had been granted under Yugoslavia's Constitution.

(Albanians had become a majority in Kosovo as a result of their large families - with eight to 10 children not uncommon - and out-migrations of Serbs following World War II and the granting of autonomous rule.)

Today Hamati works as a special assistant to Albanian separatist leader Ibrahim Rugova in a series of one-story huts that house the outlawed Albanian League of Democracy party. "The Serbs will start a conflict if and when it suits them," he says. "We just accept that."

Repression in Kosovo goes well past restrictions on education. It is a systematic denial of almost every aspect of Albanian life. Each month for the last two years, the Official Gazette of Serbia (a record of the Serbian parliament similar to the US Congressional Record) has published an average of 18 decrees curtailing Albanian rights here.

Thus Hamati says Kosovo is not a police state where a regime represses its people - but an ethnic prison state, where members of the unarmed Albanian majority are jailed and beaten by heavily armed Serb militias.

A Dutch human rights team here says tension is worse than in 1990, when political prisoners were taken. There is no more long-term imprisonment, but the team leader says the strategy has simply changed: "The Serbs now find it more efficient to punish on the streets, or take and hold Albanians for 60 days.... If Albanians complain to the police, the police say, `There is nothing we can do about the militia.' "

Serbian President Milosevic and other Serbs argue that until Serbia's 1989 intervention, minority Serbs were beginning to be marginalized by Albanians, who were taking better jobs and housing. There also were some incidents of violence between Serbs and Albanians, and Serbs accuse Albanians of wanting to create a "Greater Albania," including Kosovo. (Kosovo Albanians already have voted for and declared a separate, partitioned republic.)

But it is widely agreed that restrictions on Serbs under Communist rule never matched today's crackdown. Litany of abuses

The current situation is detailed in a recently released document called "Knocking on Europe's Conscience" produced by the Council for the Defense of Human Rights in Pristina and endorsed by the monitoring team sent here by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Some 105,000 Albanians have been forced out of work since 1990. Secondary schools are closed to Albanians. Albanian libraries, ballets, and gymnasiums are shut. Albanian TV and radio were reorganized then abolished. A singl e Albanian newspaper thrives, but in January the press will be taken over by a Belgrade conglomerate. Twenty-one key Albanian judges have been replaced. No Albanian police remain.

War in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina is a constant reminder to Albanians of what is possible. So was the Dec. 20 election, when Kosovo Serbs elected Zeljko Raznjatovic as their representative to Belgrade.

Known better to the West as "Arkan," Mr. Raznjatovic is the leader of a paramilitary group in Bosnia and Croatia that led the looting and killing later known as "ethnic cleansing." He is wanted on bank robbery charges in Sweden and was named Dec. 16 by US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger as a likely war criminal. He helped originate in Bosnia a gruesome formula now whispered loudly in Kosovo: "One-third killed, one-third cleansed, one-third stays."

Responding to pleas for help from Mr. Rugova, the president of the underground Albanian separatist government elected last spring, the CSCE sent three monitors. Housed in the Grand Hotel, their mandate is to "get the two sides talking," as one put it. One admits that so far the team has not had much success. Milosevic's ace card

Mr. Milosevic himself got his start in Kosovo. Here, in 1988, he emerged from the gray ranks of the Yugoslav Communists by giving nationalist speeches saying Kosovo's Albanians would no longer "beat the people [Serbs]." Stirring tensions in Kosovo is considered Milosevic's ace card - a well of nationalist feeling he can tap at will.

That is why, even after Milosevic handily won the allegedly rigged Serbian vote Dec. 20, many diplomats doubt Kosovo will explode. "Why should Milosevic waste his best card?" one asks.

Yet both sides are using time as a threat. Albanians know that time and demographics are on their side, and they adhere to Rugova's policy of nonviolence. Rugova, a thin former literary critic who wears a silk scarf and shy smile, admitted to the Monitor that the policy is more tactical than strategic: "We have no force, we only have people."

Some Albanians figure that if the Serbs will attack anyway, they may as well provoke war - throwing themselves on the mercy of the West, which has recently, through statements of Mr. Eagleburger, suggested it may "draw a line" at ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

"The reason Rugova is walking around," one European diplomat says, "is that Milosevic knows he is the Gandhi of Kosovo, and the next guy to come along might start a war."

"The Serbs won't give up Kosovo without spilling blood," another diplomat says. "What the Albanians should not give Serbs is an excuse for ethnic cleansing."

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