Kosovo Sign of Times: 'For Sale by Serb Owner'

Flouting a law against selling to ethnic Albanians, Serbs begin exodus that may determine who owns Kosovo.

Ratko Djukic, a Serb, wears dark sunglasses and glances nervously over his shoulder as he loads all his family's possessions into a moving truck.

"I'm not fleeing, this is only temporary," he insists, shortly before a reporter is pushed away from the scene.

Like many Serbs in the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo, Mr. Djukic sees little future here. The economy is bad and an all-out war seems inevitable.

On July 1, US State Department spokesman James Rubin acknowledged Belgrade's difficult position by easing previous demands on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to pull back his special forces in the region.

Echoing a month-old Russian position, the US affirmed that a Serbian military withdrawal could lead to massive gains by the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which already controls an estimated 40 percent of the region. The international community favors more autonomy, but not independence, for Kosovo.

But a new demographic shift stands to alter the situation on the ground: Mass migration of Serb civilians - and a trend toward more ethnic-Albanian ownership - could weaken Belgrade's claims to the land, politically and militarily.

US diplomats are intensifying talks with KLA leaders and urging a cease-fire. The US is also leaning away from pacifist ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, whom they say cannot control the KLA.

But for Serbian civilians, the migration is already under way. One Serb official, who declined to be named, estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of the less than 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo have left since March.

"Everyone I know wants to sell their apartments," says Jelena Nesic, an English professor at the Serbian University of Pristina. "They want to go because they think this will become another Bosnia. I see moving trucks on the street every day, and that's terrifying."

While the Serbs may portray their exodus as ethnic cleansing at the hands of the ethnic Albanians - an argument that would make it difficult for the international community to justify military intervention - the KLA insists that everyone is free to live in Kosovo, even in "liberated territories."

In a dozen interviews with Serbs in the provincial capital of Pristina, an overwhelming majority say they are searching for a way to move to either northern Serbia or Montenegro. Some are hindered by feelings of guilt and uncertainty. But most say the fight for Kosovo has been lost and the only thing stopping them from moving is a 1989 law that makes it almost impossible for a Serb to sell property to an ethnic Albanian.

"By discouraging the sale of property, the state is trying to save the land," explains Ninoslav Nesic, a Serbian lawyer in Pristina who specializes in real-estate transactions. "This law has political connotations and in a way it hurts the Serbs here because it limits their rights."

The law, imposed when Mr. Milosevic rose to power and stripped the ethnic Albanians of their autonomy, gives the minister of finance the right to deny a property transaction if it would "change the natural structure of citizens" or "create insecurity among citizens."

A spokesman for the minister of finance in Belgrade who did not give his name said the law applied to all of Serbia, but refused further comment.

Though the measure does not mention ethnic Albanians, it was clearly designed to halt the migration trend in Kosovo, Serbs and Albanians say.

Ethnic Albanians, with one of the highest birth rates in Europe, are 90 percent of the 2 million population and growing. Serbs have a low birth rate and are gradually moving north.

Milosevic has made other attempts to keep Serbs in Kosovo, including building homes for Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and offering financial incentives for Serbs to move to Kosovo. But the property measure is the most flagrant.

"This law is racist," says Drita Tuhina, an Albanian lawyer in Pristina. "It was brought directly against the Albanians. But in the end, it hurts the Serbs more."

With fighting in Kosovo having displaced more than 70,000 ethnic Albanians, there is a great demand for real-estate purchases, especially in the relatively calm provincial capital, Pristina.

Earlier this week some 8,000 ethnic Albanians were forced to leave their villages, which were bombarded by Serbian artillery fire in an effort to reclaim the mine from KLA rebels. Many of the displaced persons went to nearby Pristina.

At Masters, the largest Serbian real-estate agency in Kosovo, about 2,000 Serbian homes are up for sale, while only 200 ethnic Albanians are looking to move. "The Serbs want to leave their land, the Albanians want to buy and stay here," says Biljana Zivic, an agent.

Yet both sides agree that the property law is not working as intended. Risky deals are cut under the table, bribes are paid, and complex intermarriage scenarios are used to fool the authorities. Some Serbs are moving but holding on to their property in the hope that the law will not be renewed in the year 2000. One result is that the cash-starved Serbian government loses a 3 to 26 percent property sales tax.

In the Yugoslav land registry, Serbs still own 73 percent of the land and a highly disproportionate number of apartments in Kosovo, officials say. In reality, Kosovo belongs to the ethnic Albanians.

Most of the land and apartments were obtained in 1992 and 1993, after the collapse of communism, when renters were given the chance to buy back property at extremely low rates. Albanians say the government favored the Serbs in those deals.

Now, Serbs who are looking to move but are unable to find a loophole are increasingly blaming Milosevic.

Sasa Armus has been trying to sell an apartment for years, with no success.

"I feel bad and it's hard for me to leave," he says. "But all the clever people are leaving. The state is the only thing stopping us. Maybe Milosevic would say I'm a traitor, but I'm not."

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