Serbs smile as Britain wags its finger

Kosovo's agony: Minister's lecture on violence draws contempt from the men behind the province's bloodshed
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The Independent Online
ON THE side of a long white house peppered with bullet holes are the spray-painted words: "KLA-Kosovo Republic - Rugova."

Did the Albanians really write this on the wall before the Serb offensive? Or did the victorious Serbs, languishing now beside their armoured vehicles amid the wreckage of Prilip, scrawl the initials of the Kosovo Liberation Army onto their handiwork, together with the name of Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, who had opened negotiations with Slobodan Milosevic until the latest battle brought their talks to an inevitable end.

In the bright sunlight, crushed glass winked cynically at us from the road; telegraph poles lay splintered in the ditches. There were more rafters, twisted, skeletal, from the broken houses.

Prilip was the same old story. Or that, at least, is what Bosko Drobnjak of the local Serb information ministry implied when he lectured us, down the road in Pec, on the iniquities of the Albanians.

If only the Albanians would talk to the Serbs, he lamented - just as the world wanted them to do. "We have always been in favour of an open and unconditional dialogue with the legitimate representatives of the Albanians," he said.

"Our position is that dialogue is not only the best but the only solution to the problems here . . . unfortunately, the dialogue failed only because of the Albanian side - because while we were inviting them for a dialogue, Mr Rugova and other Albanians were travelling all over the world looking for support for an independent Kosovo and filling their people with illusions."

It was a tale we were to hear again and again. The first Rugova-Milosevic talks - broken off when the Serbs smashed their way through the villages around Decani - had "created realistic assumptions for a dialogue" but the "terrorists" (the KLA and anyone else who fought back at the Serbs) did their best to end the talks.

Even in the precincts of the 14th-century Orthodox monastery of Decani, built by King Stefan (not the church at Gracanica as The Independent stated in its report yesterday) the same motif could be discovered. Only dialogue would solve the problems of Kosovo.

So fast forward, now, to the provincial capital of Pristina, where yesterday morning a black Range-Rover with a minuscule British ambassadorial flag, sweeps meaningfully into town.

From it steps Tony Lloyd, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the government of Her Britannic Majesty, to knock some heads together.

To representatives of Mr Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, he announces that "all options are open" for the international community, that violence must end, that the militarisation of Kosovo must be stopped.

Then the Range-Rover glides down the street for a meeting with Velko Odalovic, the highest local authority official in Pristina - appointed by Belgrade, of course - whose private sanctum, adorned with oil paintings of 19th-century Yugoslav cottages, was made available to Mr Lloyd.

The building itself contained the usual central committee splendours; a set of dirty curtains partly torn from their rail, a manky carpet, massive plastic ivy bushes and cracked marble columns.

"My father worked here as a council official," a young Albanian girl whispered softly beside me. "Until the Serbs fired all the Albanians nine years ago. Now he stays at home and rests."

Mr Lloyd spent all of 15 minutes with his Serbian host and then emerged to greet the Serb television cameras. "I told him I thought he would be much bigger," one of Mr Odalovic's female assistants muttered. Ah, indeed. Mr Lloyd is a friendly but rather short Mancunian.

Mr Odalovic, like most Serb men, appeared to be 8ft tall and climbing. He looked down upon the little Englishman with a broad smile.

"The message to all sides is a very simple one," Mr Lloyd piped up. "There is no military solution to the problems of Kosovo ... the future is meaningful negotiation - and meaningful negotiation within the Yugoslav federation. That's a very clear message by the international community."

Back in Pec, on the other side of those crumpled Albanian villages, Mr Drobnjak must have been rubbing his hands in glee. Was this not exactlywhat he had just been telling us?

The world, Mr Lloyd went on insisting quaintly, "won't see a lurch into violence that has been unacceptable" - an oddly ungrammatical phrase that hinted at the recent Serb violence but might just have been referring to the Bosnian war. There then stepped forward a female Serb reporter of immense height who asked Mr Lloyd for his views on "Albanian terrorism".

One could pity the poor minister. "We are against violence by any side," he murmured, all too aware of the traps of this particular question.

He had previously condemned violence by the KLA, but the questions kept coming: terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. Mr Lloyd looked irritated. So tell me, I asked him by way of distraction, were the Serbs and Albanians shaking in their shoes at his message? "This is desperately serious," he replied bravely. "All sides should understand that."

And Mr Lloyd made his excuses, because he had to depart for the airport. "He's going to a place beginning with `M', I think," a BBC technical muttered plaintively.

Yes, he was en route to Montenegro to lecture President Milo Djukanovic, though he might just as well have gone to Macedonia. The Balkans are used to messages, especially those brought by small men in Range-Rovers.

So after Her Britannic Majesty's minister had left Pristina, I called by to see Mr Odalovic in his office, where the rustic cottages in the three oil paintings looked all too similar to those we had seen - without roofs, of course - a few hours earlier.

"These visitors we have are very conscious of their responsibility," he said. "They know what they are talking about. Sometimes they tell us things we don't like - but we remain polite to them and smile. Then sometimes they come back and tell us things which are good for us - and we like to hear this. So of course, people like Mr Lloyd are always welcome."

And Mr Odalovic smiled a very broad smile indeed. But he didn't seem to me to be shaking in his shoes.