Kosovo set to ignite new Balkan war

Ethnic tension has reached a dangerous peak, writes Miranda Vickers
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A series of attacks on Serb police targets in Kosovo last week has further increased the possibility of conflict in the predominantly Albanian-inhabited region of former Yugoslavia.

Since the beginning of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo has been seen as the most dangerous Balkan powder keg. Any armed conflict could quickly escalate into international violence involving Albania and Macedonia, with its 40 per cent Albanian population. Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey would then risk being drawn into the conflict, with the resulting destablisation of the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.

The assaults, using automatic weapons and hand-grenades, left two policeman dead and several seriously wounded in the regions of Podujeva and Kosovo Mitrovica. They are presumed to be the work of Albanian separatists belonging to the Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves, UCK), an underground organisation which, in a letter to the BBC, admitted responsibility for the killings last month of six Serbs, three of them policemen, in the Decani region of southern Kosovo, and a series of grenade attacks on Serb refugee targets in mid-February.

The Podujeva region has now been sealed off by a massive police presence and several Albanians have been taken to police stations where they have reportedly been beaten up. Serbs view the attacks as a desperate attempt by Albanian extremists to focus international attention on Kosovo.

Following the rise to power of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1989, Kosovo's autonomous status was revoked and the region was reintegrated into Serbia and subject to government from Belgrade. Since then, Serbian control has been reinforced by a 40,000 standing army in Kosovo backed up by 30,000 paramilitaries and police.

In response, the Albanians, who comprise 90 per cent of the population, formed the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) which set up a "shadow government" led by "President" Ibrahim Rugova. Since then, despite severe human rights abuses, the LDK has advocated a policy of peaceful resistance, calling for restraint from all Kosovo's citizens.

Such pleas are, however, falling on increasingly deaf ears. The apartheid system that now operates in Kosovo keeps Serbs and Albanians apart, effectively reinforcing fear and suspicion of each community's aspirations and exacerbating the already deep divisions.

Mr Rugova, now a tired and withdrawn man, is fast losing credibility amongst his increasingly frustrated followers. Realising that their passive stance has been ignored by the international community, many Albanians are now demanding more aggressive action to achieve their goal of an independent Kosovo.

In a session last week of the Yugoslav lower house, interior minister Vukasin Jokanovic said that: "the Albanian separatist movement in Kosovo was striving to maintain a tense atmosphere and even create new tensions. A stabilisation is not in the interest of the separatist movement, particularly given the unequivocal stand of the international community that Kosovo is Serbia's internal affair." But patience on all sides is wearing thin. At a news conference, an angry spokesman for the Democratic Party of Serbia (DS) accused the authorities of pursuing an "ostrich-like policy" in Kosovo.

The deteriorating situation has seriously alarmed international observers, prompting the Americans to hastily open a US Information Centre in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. Speaking at the opening ceremony, John Kornblum, US mediator for former Yugoslavia, said the centre was another "proof of permanent US interest and concern for the people of the region." The State Department also strongly reconfirmed its stance that the Belgrade government has to show substantial progress before the 'outer wall' of sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia can be lifted.

Tensions were further heightened in a speech last week by the president of the Serbian Academy of Science (SANU), Alexander Despic, who called the Kovovo issue "the most important strategic problem of the Serbian people's future". He shocked listeners by indicating that, due to the overwhelming demographic superiority of the Albanians in Kosovo, the time had come for a possible "peaceful and civilised" secession of the region.

The Yugoslav League of Communists immediately criticised Despic's "reckless" stance calling it "irresponsible" and dangerous for inter-ethnic relations in Kosovo. The LDK, however, welcomed Despic's proposal. LDK deputy chairman, Fehmi Agani, told the independent Serbian newspaper Nasa Borba that "this statement is interpreted by the Albanians as proof that the original Serbian nationalist aggression has been defeated".

The SANU speech seriously alarmed Kosovo's increasingly wary Serb and Montenegrin population, who feel Belgrade is about to sell them out. Several thousand gathered in Gracanica monastery last Saturday for a meeting organised by the newly-formed Serbian Resistance Movement (SAM), who demanded that an internal consensus be reached, and the national interest be clearly defined before any solution to the problem of Kosovo was proposed.

Although President Milosevic declined an invitation to present his views on Kosovo, the meeting began with a pre- prepared address to the state leader, read by writer Aco Rakocevic: "The Serbs of Kosovo refuse to be cattle peacefully led to the slaughter without knowing what awaits them."

In the absence of any initiative from Belgrade, the situation on the ground is becoming increasingly dangerous. The time for agreement between Serbs and Albanians is fast running out. The recent recognition of Yugoslavia by several EU countries and the failure of the Dayton Accord to address the Kosovo issue has left Albanians angry and disillusioned.

They feel they are now being forced to abandon their passive stance. At the same time Kosovo's Slavs, determined not to suffer the same fate of Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, are mobilising themselves in their drive to keep Kosovo within the borders of Yugoslavia.