Unrest in Albania Echoes Across the South Balkans


The conflict in Albania is just a couple hours' drive from the 2 million Albanians here in Serb-held Kosovo. It involves not nameless citizens, but cousins, friends, and intellectual and spiritual leaders.

The Kosovo Albanians have long sought freedom from the Serbs. But not through war. Now, as their cousins in neighboring Albania appear close to taking up arms against each other in a conflict few here are able to explain, Albanians in Kosovo are eager to see the Albanian conflict resolved peacefully and to keep it from spreading.

"For the time being, there is no direct, concrete impact of developments in Albania here, although we as Albanians are a little bit sentimental," says Ibrahim Rugova, who was elected president of the Kosovo Albanians in 1992. "We stick to our own problems and our own house. We believe the situation will improve."

The troubles to the south may even have reduced the possibility of unrest in Kosovo. "They have shown that Serbia still has better chances for reforms than Albania," Bleri Shala, editor of Pristina's Albanian-language Zeri weekly, told the Associated Press.

"What has happened in Albania makes it clear that the solution for Kosovo lies in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo Albanians, and not in Albania or somewhere else," he added.

Kosovo Albanians outnumber Serbs here 9 to 1, but Serbs govern them. Serbs control the police, the Army, the utilities, even trash collection, which seems to have disappeared for the past decade. Albanians are barred from government jobs, from attending their Serbian-language-only university, and from using the national library in Pristina.

Tax money from ethnic Albanians is - to their outrage - being used to build a huge, red-brick Serbian Orthodox church in the center of town. The town itself is grim with its piles of garbage, Communist-era buildings, and overcrowded streets.

"Albanians in Kosovo are paralyzed by fear. They have in front of them the example of Bosnia," says Zarko Korac, a political analyst in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. "But the Americans have sent a very clear message to [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic that the ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia will not be tolerated [against Kosovo Albanians]."

Kosovo Albanians do not believe that many of the 500,000 weapons now loose in the hands of Albanian civilians will get into Kosovo. They say the Serbian-Albanian border is tightly controlled by the Serb Army and claim they have no intention of launching an armed uprising against the Serbs.

They say it's much more likely that arms are getting over the Macedonian-Albanian border to the south. Macedonia has 700,000 Albanians - 30 percent of the population.

Kosovo Albanians say nearby Macedonia is in serious trouble. For weeks, Macedonian nationalists have been demonstrating in their capital, Skopje, against allowing the country's Albanian minority to study in Albanian in the Skopje teachers' college.

Some Macedonian protesters are reported to have called for "gas chambers" for Albanians, adding to the atmosphere of hysteria and ethnic mistrust.

"There is a pattern of instability in Europe south of Slovenia and north of Greece which can no longer be overlooked. The dangers to Kosovo and Macedonia should not be underestimated," warned Carl Bildt, UN high representative to Bosnia last week.

The UN deployed 1,100 troops - including 500 US soldiers - to Macedonia in 1992 to serve as a "trip wire," to prevent the Bosnian conflict from spreading there and to Greece. An undisclosed number of those troops were moved to the Macedonian-Albanian border last week.

Kosovo leaders say finding a solution to the Kosovo problem will ease tensions throughout the region. "The key for keeping peace in this part of the Balkans is achieving historical agreement between Serbs and Albanians," Mr. Shala told the Monitor. "If we solve the Kosovo problem, you will not have any problem with Macedonia, Serbia, or Albania."

Both Serbs and Albanians claim a right to control Kosovo - which accounts for a quarter of Serbia's territory and a fifth of its population. Serbs claim a historical right to the land - they lost it to the Turks here in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 - and consider it their spiritual homeland. But Albanians make up 92 percent of Kosovo's population of 2 million and say that their Serb rulers treat them as second-class citizens.

Both sides are looking to Washington to spearhead negotiations between Serbs and Albanians over the Kosovo issue. The US has made improved human rights for Albanians in Kosovo a precondition for Mr. Milosevic to win international loans and other economic assistance for his country. A conference sponsored by the Project on Ethnic Relations on the Kosovo issue is scheduled to meet in April in New York.

But Mr. Korac warns that "We have to move faster."

"We only have to look at Bosnia to remember that the worst-case scenario, what we said was impossible, can and does happen in the Balkans," he adds.

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