The Independent Archive 16 September 1988: Yugoslav protesters hail Milosevic as the new Tito

The government in Belgrade risks defeat over Kosovo at the hands of the rising Serbian nationalists, reports Edward Steen from Pristina
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THOUSANDS OF Yugoslavs yesterday staged a protest rally in Sremska Mitrovica, north-west of Belgrade, accusing ethnic Albanians of persecuting Serbs in Kosovo province. The crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 expressed support for Slobodan Milosevic, the populist Serbian Communist Party leader.

The demonstration came on the eve of the arrival here of the Prime Minister, Branko Mikulic, with a clutch of central government ministers in a final attempt to wrest control of Kosovo province from Mr Milosevic. But the government's effort to restore "total constitutionality and legality" has made almost no impact in Kosovo, where 200,000 Serbs are outnumbered almost nine to one by ethnic Albanians. The politicians' day-long whistle- stop tour, including a visit to the 300 federal anti-terrorist police stationed here since last autumn to appease Serbian fears, is likely only to expose federal impotence in the face of a seemingly unstoppable Serbian nationalist movement.

The key question now is whether such populism will take off across the country and whether Mr Milosevic, 48, will try to assume control. He built his power base in the Serbian party last October with the slogan "The people have had enough of leaders", and kicked out all his rivals. A poker game is going on between the federal party and the Serbs about the date of the next Central Committee plenum, due to be held by the end of this month, when Mr Milosevic will renew his demand for a special party congress at which he may well succeed in his ambitions.

As soon as the date is announced, his allies in Kosovo plan to mobilise up to a million people to camp around Belgrade's Sava centre, where the plenum is being held, to insist on their demands. These go well beyond restoration of Serbian power over its autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina to include the removal of a large number of politicians who do not suit them. Who pleases them is clear enough: the protesters carry Mr Milosevic's portrait and sing a song acclaiming him as the new Tito.

Briefed about the tense mood here, where the simplest action is taken to have a nationalist meaning, the visiting ministers - who join three members of the federal Politburo already touring Kosovo - will find the situation as elusive and as volatile as a soapy balloon. The streets are superficially calm. Serbian stories of systematic rape and theft are often exaggerated. But the gypsy and Turkish minorities also feel under threat; in Pristina a few days ago, a gypsy girl really did have petrol poured over her and was set alight. No one bothered to ask by whom.

The Albanians, an oppressed minority in Yugoslavia, are the oppressive majority in Kosovo, although their methods are usually more insidious and irresistible than either individual violence or the separatist riots suppressed here in 1981. But an undercurrent of nightmare trickles through the simplest conversation in Kosovo almost as silently as the Bistrica dribbling over its stony river-bed past the Turkish baths, Byzantine churches and ancient minarets of Prizren, 12 miles from the Albanian border. For 200 years, this was the seat of the Serbian king; now it is 70 per cent Albanian.

Claustrophobic police surveillance and awareness of what is at stake make people extremely wary. They recognise the plain-clothes police and clam up. "We said what we wanted to say in 1981," Remzi, a 30-year-old plumber, whispered to me in a dark corner. "Since then, we have kept quiet." But, if the Serbs tried to conquer them by force, "we know how to defend ourselves". Black-market weapons have spread ominously throughout both communities. "I don't want to say anything about politics," says the priest at the Orthodox seminary, visibly tensing at questions of any but an historical kind. "There are very, very good people among the Albanians, but unfortunately most of them have been seduced by . . ." Separatism? "Yes, you could say separatism."

Mr Mikulic's special plane is likely to carry a heavy new load of disquiet as it flies back to Belgrade today over Pristina's modern buildings - gradually falling into the surrounding dust - which were a gift from Serbia as part of its vain bid to buy Albanian loyalty here.

From the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Friday 16 September 1988