In Balkans, shifting 'bad guy' role

Yugoslavia looks for $1.2 billion in aid on Friday, as West decries ethnic- Albanian rebels.

The murderous carousel of civil war and "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans seems set for another bitter turn, as Macedonia teeters on the edge of all-out war. Ten years to the week since Yugoslavia began to break up, plunging into its cycle of violence, ethnic Slavs and Albanians are at each other's throats again.

But as European diplomats fight to pull Macedonia back from the brink of disaster, Western views of the protagonists differ sharply from the days when NATO went to war in neighboring Kosovo to protect vulnerable ethnic Albanians from Serbian Slav oppression.

Today, NATO secretary-general George Robertson brands the ethnic-Albanian guerrillas fighting for greater rights in Macedonia "armed thugs." Western diplomats are supporting the Slav-dominated government there, even as they try to moderate its stance.

And Belgrade's steps this week toward surrendering former President Slobodan Milosevic to an international war crimes court in The Hague - pushing aside its dreams of a "greater Serbia" - have brought Yugoslavia to the doorstep of international respectability.

Two years after the Kosovo war ended, "perceptions of Yugoslavia have changed dramatically," says Daniel Serwer, a Balkans analyst at the US Institute for Peace in Washington.

So have Western attitudes to ethnic Albanians. "There is a huge sense of betrayal in Western governments about what the Albanians have been doing," says Tim Judah, the London-based author of two books on the Balkans. "People feel a bit fooled."

From victims to aggressors

The former victims in Kosovo are now seen as the aggressors in Macedonia. The Albanian guerrillas themselves - many of whom fought in Kosovo - appear to believe they are doing the same thing now as they did two years ago: defending their people against Slav oppression.

In Western eyes, however, "it is completely different," says Mr. Serwer. "In Kosovo, the United States came to see the KLA [guerrillas] as its ground force" fighting a government that Washington, too, viewed as the enemy. In Macedonia, "where we support the government ... the guerrillas are a pain in the neck."

The UN administration's problems in Kosovo over the past two years have also soured foreign views of the Albanians who control the province under international supervision.

The Serbs who stayed after NATO troops arrived have been subject to "an unrelenting tide of violence," according to a recent report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It pointed to "an organized campaign ... to terrorize minority populations."

Several hundred Serbs have been murdered over the past two years, and hardly any of the estimated 170,000 who fled at the end of the war have dared to return home.

"Nobody expected Kosovo to be a source of tension for the southern Balkans," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade. "The West expected close cooperation with the former KLA leaders, and the Albanians betrayed this trust. It has been a big disappointment."

Overcoming this disappointment is not easy for Albanian lobbyists in Washington.

"People hear about radical Albanians in Macedonia, and that leads them to believe that not all Albanians are good guys," says Ilir Xherka, head of the Albanian-American Council in Washington. "It takes a lot of explanation that not all Albanians are radicals either."

Yugoslavia, on the other hand, hopes to crown its return to the international fold with a successful donors conference on Friday, where the government is seeking $1.2 billion in aid and investment, and to renegotiate $12 billion of international debt.

Washington has said US officials will attend the meeting only if Belgrade has begun to cooperate with the international war crimes court in The Hague. On Monday, Yugoslavia's justice minister filed court papers seeking the extradition of Mr. Milosevic to the court. On Saturday, the government had issued a decree paving the way for such a move.

This followed other steps that the Yugoslav authorities have taken to rehabilitate themselves since Milosevic was ousted last October, and Vojislav Kostunica took over as president.

Changes in Yugoslavia

They include, notably, gently putting down an Albanian rebellion in the Presevo Valley, in southern Serbia, in cooperation with NATO troops in Kosovo; signing a border agreement with Macedonia; dividing up the assets of the former Yugoslavia among its now-independent republics, and beginning to face up to the horrors that the previous government visited on the region.

Newly free TV stations in Belgrade regularly broadcast the excavation of mass graves, which are believed to contain the bodies of ethnic Albanians killed in Kosovo who were brought in refrigerated trucks to be buried inside Serbia.

Since Milosevic was overthrown, all international sanctions against Yugoslavia have been lifted, and the country has been readmitted to all of the international organizations from which it had been excluded as a pariah.

"After Oct. 5th [the day of Milosevic's downfall] Yugoslavia became part of the solution, and was no longer the problem," says a foreign diplomat in Belgrade.

That is not entirely the case with the Serbs' ethnic-Slav cousins in Macedonia, who dominate a coalition government with ethnic-Albanian political parties. European diplomats encouraging negotiations to grant Albanians greater rights have been frustrated by what they see as foot-dragging.

"The leadership one needs to move forward was not there" during talks last week, complains one source close to the negotiations.

Lord Robertson, NATO's leader, lashed out over the weekend against the Macedonian Army for breaking a European Union-brokered cease-fire, and warned Slav extremists that "NATO will not collude in the slicing up of this country on ethnic lines that would be a blueprint for disaster."

But European diplomats also criticized Albanian politicians for adopting what they called maximalist positions, such as a demand for an Albanian veto over key government decisions.

Western governments hope that Milosevic's eventual transfer to The Hague will finally bury his dream of a "greater Serbia," in whose name he wrought such destruction on his country and the region.

Now, however, they fear they may have yet to deal with extremist Albanian ambitions to create a "greater Albania."

"The Albanians overdid things in Kosovo," says Braca Grubacic, a political analyst and editor of the VIP newsletter in Belgrade. "Instead of putting their foot on the brake and understanding the change of mood in the international community, many see the situation as a historic opportunity for a national project," he says. "The troubles will be part of the region for years to come, and the headache for Western peacekeepers is far from over."

Alex Todorovic in Belgrade contributed to this story.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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