Serbs poised to crush Kosovo resistance

The West's response will be too little, too late - as usual, predicts Marcus Tanner
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The Independent Online
HIGH in the so-called "Cursed" mountains which separate Serbia from Albania, a baby was born last week to one of the thousands of Albanian refugees streaming out of Kosovo ahead of Serbia's avenging army.

Kimete Nitaj said she would call her baby Clirim, Albanian for "liberation". "Maybe he'll grow up in a liberated Kosovo," she said. For the moment that is a pitifully distant prospect. Clirim seems more likely spend at least his youth with tens of thousands of his compatriots in Greece, Italy or further to the West.

Kosovo's neighbours are already bracing for a vast influx of refugees that will rival in scale the 1992 exodus of Bosnian Muslims, many of whom, three years after the Bosnian peace deal, are still in the West. Few will be able to stay in impoverished Albania.

Of the "Kosovo Liberation Army", the armed force that the Yugoslav army is supposedly pursuing, nothing at all can be seen. None of the refugees making the arduous three-day trek into Albania had seen any "army" made up of their fellow Kosovars fighting Serbia's vicious rule in the province. The Western media has talked up its growing strength and popularity, but there is no hard evidence that the KLA has any organisation or command structure, or that it even exists.

Belgrade, which has every reason to inflate the magnitude of the Kosovo "army", has - significantly - sealed off the western half of Kosovo from foreign journalists entirely, even cutting the telephone lines. As a result no outside observers can check whether or not Serbs are meeting any resistance as they create their cordon sanitaire along the Albanian border. The signs point to the existence of scattered armed bands of farmers and shepherds whose puny assaults on the Serb police have given Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, a perfect excuse to quash the Kosovo Albanians once and for all, and to rally the nation to his economically incompetent government. Thus far, the KLA seem to have been more effective in assassinating Albanians who have cooperated with the Serbian regime than in countering Serbia's troops.

The KLA fighters no doubt operate under the presumption that by goading the enemy into vicious reprisals, they will galvanise Albanian resistance and outflank the despised moderates in Pristina of the LKD, the Democratic League of Kosovo. That was, after all, the successful strategy of Tito's partisans during the Second World War.

But Tito could count on military support from the Allies. By contrast, there is no sign that the outside world is ready to help the Kosovars. Last week the Albanian government, accusing Serbia of "genocide", announced for the first time that it supported the armed struggle in Kosovo. But Albania is a chronically weak state, and any attempt by Tirana to come to the Kosovars' rescue might simply give Serbia an excuse to attack Albania as well.

Kosovo, which Serbia seized from the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1912, is poor and overcrowded. Its 200,000 Serbs will never outnumber Kosovo's two million or so Albanians. It was "tinder waiting for a spark" even early this century, when the writer Edith Durham was touring the region.

Nato, due to "discuss" Kosovo again on Friday, is "considering military options", according to Britain's Defence Secretary, George Robertson. In Rome, Tony Blair said Mr Milosevic should take note of this "very, very strong message". But Mr Milosevic has heard this before, in Bosnia. As in Bosnia, Serbia's Russian allies will ensure any Western response is too late.

Mr Milosevic's goal in Kosovo remains opaque. There are some in the Serb nationalist camp who are known to believe that the attempt to hold on to the whole of the province is a lost cause. These Serbs believe they would do better to negotiate from a position of strength before they snatch half of the loaf from the conference that must follow the inevitable war. They are thought to include Serbia's most influential writer, Dobrica Cosic, once Mr Milosevic's mentor and the sinister genius behind the Serbian national awakening of the Eighties.

But Mr Milosevic may not be ready to concede an inch of Kosovo. Its status is the great issue of Serbian modern politics and the one that brought him to power in 1987, when a wave of huge popular demonstrations overthrew his peaceable predecessor, Ivan Stambolic. The moment which made Mr Milosevic's career came when, as Mr Stambolic's deputy, he visited Kosovo in the spring of 1987 and told Serbian demonstrators complaining of Albanian harassment that "no one has the right to beat you". Overnight he became Serbia's hero, and his boss was consigned to the dustbin.

After taking power, Mr Milosevic devoted himself to dismantling Kosovo's autonomyand to jailing Kosovo's former Albanian leader, Azem Vlassi. In June 1989, flanked by the bishops of the Orthodox Church, he addressed a million of his compatriots gathered in Pristina at celebrations marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. It was his greatest hour.

For Mr Milosevic to concede anything in Kosovo would expose him to the fury of Serbia's powerful Church hierarchy and the contempt of ordinary Serbs. Perhaps a war-weary nation will grudgingly come to concede what at first seemed unacceptable, but that day is far off.

By the weekend, the number of refugees joining baby Clirimwas 20,000 and rising, according to Paskal Milo, Albania's Foreign Minister. "Unfortunately," he lamented, the big powers "have given Milosevic much more carrot than stick."