Can Kosovo Go? Some Serbs Doubt 'Greater Serbia' Goal

Yugoslav Army's war on separatist rebels seen as losing luster. Serb leader Milosevic agreed June 16 to resume talks with ethnic Albanians.

Unlike Bosnia and Croatia, Kosovo is a war that most Serbs do not want.

As fighting escalates in the Albanian-dominated southern Serbian province, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been unable to stir up the same wave of nationalism that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

"People are facing the reality that 'Greater Serbia' belongs to past centuries, not to the present," says Vladamir Milosevic, a psychiatrist in Belgrade. "They are tired and do not want to fight."

Scores of Serbian conscripts, many from Belgrade and other northern cities, have deserted their posts in Kosovo. And 80 parents of soldiers from the city of Kragujevac said they would try to find their sons in Kosovo to ask that they be stationed elsewhere.

Also, Milo Djukanovic, the president of Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up post-war Yugoslavia, is trying to recall any Montenegrin conscripts who have been stationed in Kosovo. Political leaders in the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina are making similar demands.

It's a far cry from the early 1990s, when young men eagerly signed up to fight for their brethren in Croatia and Bosnia.

"With Bosnia, you had lots of guys keen on adventure who wanted to go," says Nenad Canak, the president of an opposition political party in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. "Now people know what war is. They want nothing to do with it."

The general apathy toward Kosovo, which Serbs portray as the cradle of their culture, weakens the position of President Milosevic as he weighs the international community's resolve in solving a decades-old Balkan conundrum.

After a June 16 meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was trying to persuade the Yugoslav president to ease up on violent police and army crackdowns that have left close to 300 dead and over 50,000 homeless, Mr. Milosevic agreed to resume negotiations.

Milosevic said he would talk with Ibrahim Rugova, a political leader of Kosovo's Albanians, and not with the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main militant group fighting to sever the southern Serb province from Yugoslavia. He also said his decision had nothing to do with NATO exercises in the region.

Alexei Pushkov, a commentator from the ORT state television, said earlier that a positive outcome of the Moscow meeting would be a relief for Russia. Not only would it bolster its flagging diplomatic prestige, but it would also save Russia the humiliation of having to be opposed to possible NATO action.

"Russia does not want to see any decision taken by an international body without its participation," he said. It remains unclear whether mutual preconditions will be met. Kosovo's militant Albanian separatists have stated their own conditions for a dialogue, saying a cease-fire depends on withdrawal of all security forces and foreign mediation, said a report June 16 in the ethnic Albanian daily Bujku.

NATO planes roared above neighboring Macedonia and Albania June 15, flexing their muscle on the radar screens of the Yugoslav military.

Diplomats have said they would not rule out military intervention to stop the Serbs, whose recent offensive around the city of Decani has been compared to the "ethnic cleansing" operations of Bosnia.

Although Kosovo is home to many of Serbia's greatest historical treasures - Orthodox monasteries built in the 14th century, at the height of the Serbian kingdom - most Serbs have never visited the region, where ethnic Albanians are 90 percent of the population.

Serbian officials said they killed two "intruders" June 15 who were trying to smuggle in machine guns, rifles, rocket launchers, and German army uniforms from Albania. But the fighting subsided by sunrise.

Defense analysts who were in the region said the Serb forces were silent, though they appeared to be preparing for more offensives.

The secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army now controls about 40 percent of the region. They are underarmed, however, and it remains to be seen how they could hold up under increased Serb attacks.

Although the KLA has been labeled "terrorists" by the state media in Belgrade, most Serbs know very little about them, says Vesna Vujic, a political editor at the independent daily Nasa Borba.

Serbian journalists are constantly turned back at KLA checkpoints, making it impossible for them to contradict the state reports, says Ms. Vujic.

Nevertheless, growing independent media throughout Serbia have made it increasingly difficult for Milosevic to present a one-sided picture of Kosovo, according to Sasa Mirkovic, the director of the independent B-92 radio station.

B-92, which feeds to 50 other Yugoslav stations, has reported on killings of women and children in Kosovo and is among the few Serbian media who do not refer to the KLA only as "terrorists."

"Seven years ago Milosevic could create public opinion," says Mr. Mirkovic, "but now you have opposing forces to present a different side of the story."

* Staff writer Judith Matloff in Moscow contributed to this report.

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