Balkan Dominoes Could Tumble Back On Serbia Province

FOR the new Republican leaders in Congress, dealing with the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina seems simple enough: Give the Muslim-led government the arms it needs to fend off the country's land-grabbing Serbian minority.

But from where Ibrahim Rugova sits, the matter is not so clear. The tousle-haired former academic is the leader of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia where ethnic tensions threaten to ignite into a broader war.

The trigger, Dr. Rugova says, could be a decision by the United States to unilaterally exempt Bosnia from a 1991 arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on all the former Yugoslav republics.

If sanctions are lifted, Serbia could stage a massive crackdown on the province's 2 million ethnic Albanians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, says Rugova in a Monitor interview in Washington. ``If the sanctions are lifted, the Serbs would be much more aggressive in Kosovo.

Then again, it could work the other way: ``If the Serbs win in Bosnia'' - the likely outcome if sanctions are not lifted, many US lawmakers believe - ``they will turn more aggressive and would then like to finish the problem of Kosovo,'' Rugova predicts. ``In any circumstance, we are in danger.''

Kosovo's loses autonomy

Kosovo was one of two autonomous provinces that, along with six republics, constituted the former Yugoslavia.

In 1989, as Yugoslavia headed toward disintegration, Serbia's authoritarian ruler, President Slobodan Milosevic, responded to demands for self-rule from Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanians by revoking its autonomous status and deploying massive numbers of troops and police. The following year, he ousted the government and assembly and imposed direct rule from Belgrade.

Mr. Milosevic contended that he was heading off an Albanian insurrection and halting attacks against the Serbian minority. Serbs cherish Kosovo as the birthplace of their culture and Orthodox religion.

Since then, Serbia has placed Serbs in control of Kosovo's hospitals, universities, businesses, schools, and government, firing an estimated 100,000 ethnic Albanians in massive purges.

In response, Rugova's party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, declared an independent Kosovo - which does not have international recognition - and formed a semi-underground Albanian government.

At the same time, Serbia stepped up its repression, including arbitrary arrests, seizure of property, show trials, and widespread police brutality in which dozens of ethnic Albanians have been maimed and killed, according to human rights groups.

``We are witnessing nothing less than systematic, premeditated cultural genocide of the Albanian population in Kosovo by Serbia,'' says Paula Dobriansky, a specialist on European affairs who served on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration.

Diplomatic analysts fear Serbia's ultimate objective is to force Albanians to quit Kosovo, as an estimated 200,000 have already done since 1989. The alternative to peaceful departure would be a bloodletting that would almost certainly result if anti-Serbian demonstrations erupted.

"Gandhi-like" resistance

Mindful that Serbia is looking for a pretext for a crackdown, Rugova has directed a campaign of peaceful resistance. The strategy has prevented violence so far, but as the Serbian grip grows tighter, many Kosovars are showing signs of impatience.

``This movement of ours is both a necessity and a choice. We can't rely on any other policy, even radical ones,'' says Rugova, defending what one analyst describes as his ``Gandhi-like'' policy.

The example of sustained Serbian repression in Kosovo was one factor that helped convince the other Yugoslav republics to secede in 1991 and 1992, according to diplomats from the region.

If violence does occur in Kosovo, it could have significant local and international repercussions.

Albania would undoubtedly honor a mutual defense pact with Rugova in the face of Serbian aggression. Conflict in Kosovo would almost certainly spread to Macedonia, between a quarter and one-half of whose inhabitants are ethnic Albanians.

In a worst-case scenario, Greece would intervene to seize a portion of Macedonia for which it harbors historic aspirations. That could draw in Greece's main rival, Turkey, on the side of its fellow-Muslim Albanians. Conflict could send tens of thousands more refugees into Western Europe.

``If conflict breaks out, it would be a catastrophe for us. A massive slaughter would occur,'' Rugova says. ``We are without any kind of defense or protection.''

US officials have warned Serbia not to provoke open conflict in Kosovo and favor linking the lifting of economic sanctions on Serbia to reducing human rights violations and progress toward restoring Kosovo's autonomy.

But verbal support has been a weak reed for Rugova to lean on in the face of the failure of the Western alliance to come to the rescue of Bosnia - a failure, diplomatic analysts say, that has sent a clear message to Milosevic that he can act with impunity in the former Yugoslavia.

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