Milosevic turns up the heat in Kosovo

War in troubled province could save President

On the streets of Belgrade, the temperature has cooled from boiling to simmering point. Even while the mass protests continue, Slobodan Milosevic appears to hope the protesters will eventually give up and go home, if he dodges and weaves for long enough. In Serbia, some fear that the man who has saved his political skin so many times before may still have one last trick up his sleeve.

Above all, the opposition fears the Serbian President may fan tensions in the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo, where he first used nationalism 10 years ago to gain power in Serbia. There has been a familiar pattern to recent events.

The Serb rector of the university of Pristina, in Kosovo, was injured in a car bomb this month. The news was prominently reported on the front pages and blamed on "Albanian terrorists". Encouraged by the authorities, Serbs organised anti-Albanian protests in Kosovo. They claimed the Albanian "terrorists" were in league with the demonstrators in Belgrade demanding recognition of opposition victories in last November's elections. An ultra-nationalist leader, Vojislav Seselj, was shown on the television news visiting the injured rector in hospital. Talk of "separatists" and "terrorists" filled the air.

It all seemed alarmingly reminiscent of earlier conflicts which Mr Milosevic unleashed to keep power. From 1990 onwards, hate-filled television reports encouraged Serbs to lashout at their Muslim and Croat neighbours. Kosovo is such an emotive subject for many Serbs, and the Albanians are deprived of so many basic rights, that tensions in the region may explode.

This time, however, Serbs are less keen to be goaded into yet another conflict by the regime. Despite the inflammatory television news, others have been keen to pour water, not petrol, on the smouldering fire.

In Kosovo, the Serbian bishop emphasised it was unclear who planted the bomb, and said it could have been "the regime". Such statements would until recently have been unthinkable, given the strong nationalism of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In Belgrade, opposition leaders, including Vuk Draskovic, whose party has been strongly nationalist in the past, emphasised that Serbs must not allow hatred to be whipped up against the Albanians, who form 90 per cent of the population of Kosovo - a region Serbs regard as the historic "cradle" of their state.

Mr Draskovic has accused the Socialists' political allies of responsibility for the bomb. "Milosevic has always solved small problems by creating bigger problems," he told The Independent. "He did it in Croatia, and then disastrously with the war in Bosnia. He'll do anything to get rid of the pressures."

Vesna Pesic, a liberal opposition leader, is equally worried. She said: "Milosevic always seeks to externalise the problems. If you have five Serbs found dead in Kosovo and volunteers go there, and [the paramilitary leader] Arkan, in one day you would have war."

But in spite of Mr Milosevic's best efforts, political change seems certain to come. As in post-Communist Russia, the changes in Serbia will be messy. But it no longer seems possible that the process of change will be put into reverse.

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