Kosovo: shades of gray

Unlike in Bosnia, Serbs do have some legitimate claims

The extraordinary diplomatic unity demonstrated by the United States and Europe in threatening NATO airstrikes on Serb forces in Kosovo next week - in contrast to the West's three-year ambivalence toward Bosnia - suggests that both the origin of the conflict in the embattled province and visions for its future international status have a clear-cut definition.

But the political and strategic complexity of the Kosovo issue is far more ambiguous than that of Bosnia, and one that will pose more enduring regional problems than the West seems to have envisioned.

Bosnia and Kosovo are similar only in the extent of human rights horrors and the perception of a main Serb aggressor. Yet, at the risk of making a sympathetic nod to Belgrade's bull-headed leadership, there is a legitimate Serbian argument for its claims to Kosovo.

The point here isn't so much that Belgrade's views are so right as it is that the complicated moves of both the Albanian and Kosovar (ethnic Albanian) leaderships are not without their power-hungry provocations and end-goals as well.

First, claims of independence by Pristina's leaders must be examined outside the emotional heat of such noble-sounding aspirations.

There is a fundamental difference between Bosnia and Kosovo. Bosnia became an internationally recognized country in 1993, with borders that have existed almost 100 years, an independent historical personality, and a long-running government structure. Kosovo - though autonomous - remains a part of Serbia. Its strident demands for independence are currently outside the institutional capacity and political mentality of a Serbian power regime not known for its diplomatic magnanimity.

Since the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution expanded Kosovo's autonomous rights, the Kosovars, supported by Tirana, have pressed for more independence, fueling Serbian nationalism long before the Bosnian conflict. Throughout the 1980s, riots and violence erupted in the majority ethnic-Albanian province as demands for full republic status gained momentum. This led ultimately to a severe clampdown on Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 by the Yugoslav authorities.

Kosovo remained defiant: In 1990, Kosovars issued a declaration of independence, and a year later established a constitution for the Republic of Kosovo. In 1991, the majority-Albanian Kosovar parliament held a referendum in which the population voted for a sovereign state. In 1992 Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova was elected president.

Despite such strong-willed political moves, whether it is "independence" that Kosovar leaders and Tirana have genuinely desired remains murky.

From his government-in-exile base in Stuttgart, Mr. Rugova, the Kosovar rebel leader, has proclaimed that he has wanted a Kosovo "independent of Serbia and Albania." But he, Tirana, and Belgrade all know that as an independent republic, Kosovo would have little political ability and economic resources to survive on its own.

Instead, the Kosovar leadership knows its power rests in maintaining, rather than severing, connections between both Belgrade and Tirana. Its leadership has smartly played off the regional ambitions of these two powers.

For Albania, what it might lack at the moment in true financial power, it has in other areas: a geopolitically enviable location as a transport route between West and East; a heavy arms arsenal; sympathy from the West in its "cause" in Kosovo; and sympathy from the Islamic east, which sees in Albania as a cultural foothold in Europe.

Still, Albania is largely dependent on those Albanians scattered throughout neighboring, wealthier parts of the Balkans - northern Greece, western Macedonia, and, Kosovo. Feelings of unity with Albania are mixed and underscored by resentment and suspicions all around - ethnic Albanians in nearby Balkan countries largely are richer and more culturally elite than their brethren in Albania.

As a result, Tirana still has a strong interest in controlling these neighboring concentrations of power to avoid threats to its own power.

DESPITE the atrocities and history of abuses of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the Serbs, Tirana has not cut off its arms deals or commercial trade with Belgrade. Jane's, the respected military journal, recently reported a steady increase in arms purchases from Belgrade (and Turkey) by Tirana throughout 1997. And Belgrade remains one of Albania's largest trading partners.

Kosovo is also aware of its importance to the Serbs. For Serbia, resource-rich Kosovo is its main lead, zinc, and coal source. The province is also a vital lifeline to the Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, which is Belgrade's vital access route to the Adriatic and world markets. Kosovo has successfully manipulated the increasingly tense relationship between Montenegro and Belgrade, promoting mass migrations to the Adriatic-bordering republic.

Dressed in the emotionalism of an independence struggle, the complex origins of this conflict and the complicated interests behind it present no easy case. Belgrade's belligerence obscures any argument it may have. Albania's early political push for Kosovo's independence was shortsighted. And Kosovar leadership carries on ambiguous relations with both Tirana and Belgrade.

The only certain outcome in this conflict - NATO strikes or not - is the continued suffering of the people of Kosovo.

* Marcia Christoff Kurop, based in Athens, is a contributing writer for The International Herald Tribune.

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