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June 27, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 351
Serbia and Kosovo

The Vidovdan stew

by Milan Milosevic

Events in Serbia ahead of the 1998 Vidovdan holiday are marked by fatalistic indifference, dangerous as it is in these parts because it can sometimes explode into uncontrolled rage. Reports on the activities of ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo speak of attacks on inhabited villages, kidnapped workers, and the fighting moving closer to the provincial capital Pristina. Neither the reporters nor the fighters are still sure who's controlling what in the low-intensity clashes, meaning that the KLA might have launched another offensive. It could also mean that Serbian police are being tested when it has been compelled to show restraint, as the ethnic Albanian party is determined to get at least an international protectorate by means of a military intervention. Ethnic Albanian sources have reported deaths of their civilians while Serbs speak of more atrocities committed against their compatriots in Kosovo.

The concern among Kosovo's Serbs and Montenegrins becomes apparent when they leave behind everything they have and take refuge in larger, Serb-populated villages being defended with guns. Their former leader, Miroslav Colevic, has launched a campaign for the formation of Serb Defense Forces ( SOS), while the state-controlled media reported that Serbs are fighting in  self-defense to protect their surrounded villages near Klina and Glogovac.

Reuters news agency said the ethnic Albanian Kastrati family returned  to the village of Broje in Drenica, only to find their home burned to the ground and their property completely demolished. The agency also brought a detailed story from the village of Junik besieged by the KLA. Reuters ' reporters spoke to Ljuim Hadziu, a forty-year old ethnic Albanian lawyer who was introduced as a writer and Gani Cehu, a thirty-year old lawyer. The two reportedly met with Richard Holbrooke, the American ambassador to the UN and Bill Clinton's special envoy for the Balkans.

They said Junik hadn't been destroyed all that much and that nearby villages suffered a lot more damage. "The key thing is that the Kosovo Albanians have the will and the spirit to defend their homes and win their freedom. Without that guns mean nothing, as the Serbs are finding out," Cehu told Reuters.

It will be interesting to see what will result from the meeting between Richard Holbrooke and KLA representatives, for the village of Junik was used by the Serbian regime-controlled media as a model of peace in Kosovo until its Serb defenders erected barricades.

After a four-hour meeting with Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, on  June 23, Holbrooke described the situation as critical and specified that the objective of his mission was to "prevent the conflict from escalating into a full scale war." He stressed that "both sides will have to show restraint" to help his cause, adding that Contact Group member countries were sending extra staff to their Belgrade embassies to set up a diplomatic observers mission in Kosovo. Observers' missions consisting of diplomats and representatives of international organizations in Belgrade is part of a package Milosevic accepted in Moscow.

A slight change in the US position on the KLA is notable, although the call to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian guerrillas to refrain from fighting in order not to give Milosevic an excuse for reprisals, was advice rather than a demand. Bajram Bukosi, the prime minister of Kosovo's so-called exile government, called on the KLA to act under his leadership. Western countries have vowed to stop the infiltration of money and weapons from northern Albania to Kosovo, citing a truck the KLA loaded with arms which the Albanian  government confiscated in the port town of Valona. The ship carrying the arms came from Italy, and the weapons in it allegedly came from Bosnia.  There are no reports on fresh police activities. Bukosi seems to have been given a tacit political asylum in some western European countries. Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano keeps lobbying for a NATO intervention in Kosovo and says that his country is "on the verge of war with Yugoslavia." He admitted that his government had contacted "the forces of armed resistance" in Kosovo, but he declined to specify whether he had the KLA in mind. Western media have become a bit romantic in describing the KLA , portraying its members as bare-handed fighters for Kosovo's freedom and  independence. Most of them won't hear the official Yugoslav terminology  qualifying the KLA as a terrorist organization.

The Serbian side suspects that the pressure brought to bear by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is aimed at strengthening the KLA as NATO's potential partner whose role is to control developments in the field. The past week has therefore been marked by diplomatic activities, fresh NATO threats against Serbia, and Russian warnings that sending troops without a UN approval could aggravate Russia's relations with the United States. The two countries already have a few disputes concerning Iraq, other Balkan states, arms sales, and the construction of a nuclear reactor in India, but their overall relations have so far been more effective than partial interests.

Milosevic insisted in Moscow that he should be allowed to keep his army and police where he sees fit, but he promised a selective use of force and  vowed that civilians will be spared as much as possible. The Russians have sent a diplomatic team to Belgrade to determine whether the Yugoslav president has stuck to his word. The Russian delegation actually looked quite happy as it left the Yugoslav capital. Nikolai Afanasievski, the Russian deputy foreign affairs minister, said after his meeting with Milosevic  that the Serbian leadership was prepared to meet in full all prerequisites of the Moscow agreement on a peaceful solution to the Kosovo crisis. He emphasized it was especially important that Yugoslavia acted swiftly and effectively in complying with the demands, while Milosevic told the Russians that Serbia has already taken decisive steps to fulfill the promises he made in Moscow. The Yugoslav president said Serbia has started helping refugees return to Kosovo, reconstructing destroyed houses, providing humanitarian aid and opening the roads to normal traffic.

A general plan regarding the resolving of humanitarian issues was adopted  by the Serbian government June 17. The government claims the plan is working very well and that it has provided victuals to Kosovo's hunger- stricken population. Furthermore, it says it has given aid to all displaced  persons who have left their homes temporarily and guaranteed their safe return to Kosovo.  The Serbian government claims to have launched a campaign with the UNHCR Geneva headquarters to enable an immediate and safe return of refugees to their villages. Everything the Serbian government said is aimed at assuring the Russians that their diplomatic mission in the  Balkans can and will bear fruit.

Media in Mosocow noted angrily that the US administration once again undermined Russia's diplomatic efforts by repeating its threats on Serbia and sending Richard Holbrooke to the Balkans. Zivorad Kovacevic, a former Yugoslav ambassador in Washington, says the US involvement in the Kosovo crisis is generated by the country's global rather than partial interests.  It implies that the only remaining superpower wants to establish and demonstrate its authority, while the Serbs, on the other hand, still qualify  as unacceptable the demand to withdraw troops from their rebellious southern province. The Serbian authorities regard the ultimatum as an open invitation to the KLA to take control of Kosovo before any peace talks begin. Several Yugoslav politicians, including Federal Prime Minister Momir  Bulatovic, issued a number of statements to the effect that the Yugoslav  Army will be ordered to defend the country's borders as much as it possibly can in case of a military intervention. Some sources in Montenegro suggested that the republic's leadership should make sure that fighting doesn't spill over from Kosovo. According to the Belgrade daily Nasa Borba, president of the Montenegrin Popular Party (NS) Novak Kilibarda said that Montenegrin police should disable Yugoslav Army units based in the republic from  fighting NATO. Parents whose sons are conscripts in the troubled province staged a number of protest rallies throughout Serbia last weekend. They  were supported by Vojvodina's politicians Joszef Kasa, Mile Isakov, and Nenad Canak, but the protests did not spark even a bit of a public outcry.  Public opinion has remained intact perhaps because only a small group of people feel threatened by developments in Kosovo, unlike the early nineties when far more conscripts were sent to fight in Croatia and Bosnia. Outcries against the war in which the poor are getting killed were heard  at workers' protests in Kragujevac, but the rally was mainly about fighting starvation as the average monthly income in Yugoslavia stood at 952 dinars (equivalent to 88 $) in May. The most influent political parties have expressed their sympathy for the conscripts and their parents, but also their support for the country's territorial integrity. Party leaders in  Serbia have intensified their demands on the leadership to end the crisis  quickly, having emphasized that it was the up to the police and not the  army to deal with the Kosovo conflict. Miroslav Colevic, a former leader  of Kosovo's Serbs, said he was surprised with "the Serbian president in activity regarding his constitutional obligations" given that "he hasn't  been pronounced dead yet". Colevic is actually inviting Milan Milutinovic  to declare a state of emergency in Kosovo.

Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), was the  most explicit of all in elaborating the turmoil in the southern Serbian province. Draskovic told a press conference on Tuesday, June 23, that "we  must prepare for a quick and decisive defense of Kosovo," because, as he  put it, "its ethnic Albanian leaders have made it very clear they will accept nothing short of independence having been encouraged by NATO's threats against Serbia".

"If that's how things stand, our response must be crystal clear and they  must be treated as enemies," Draskovic said. In his previous elaboration  of the situation, he said that the lives of young men should be looked after, but added that he couldn't reveal exactly how he plans to do that. The SPO leader maintains that NATO troops should get into Albania as soon as possible to dismantle training camps and seal the border from that side, while the US should help disarm the terrorists.

The SPS Kosovo board gave full support to the authorities to take all action necessary to normalize the situation. The Serbian Radical Party (SRS)  says the crisis must end quickly and warns that peace talks are the only  way out. The Democratic Party criticized the authorities for not showing  that they are able to liberate the hostages and failing to even mention  that as a condition for the talks. The Democratic Party of Serbia assessed that subduing the KLA is a prerequisite for further diplomacy and genuine peace talks. "This is a decisive moment and everyone must make an effort to quell terrorism and channel the crisis towards a positive and peaceful ending," the DSS said in a statement. The Civil Alliance of Serbia advised the Contact Group to reconsider the consequences of the KLA's offensive and the intentions of those advocating Greater Albania. "By tolerating the KLA's behavior, the international community is actually pushing the Kosovo crisis further away from a peaceful ending. Encouraging people to redraw borders by force, leads to more conflicts and instability in the Balkans," GSS president Vesna Pesic said.

Two issues are crucial for the upcoming period: do the Western powers have a genuine intention of subduing the KLA and will this organization listen? Zivorad Kovacevic maintains that the KLA is unacceptable for the West  in the long run, because of its uncompromising ambitions posing a threat to the principle that borders must not be changed by force. Slobodan Milosevic got the Moscow declaration to let him deal with the KLA, but it is apparent that he has been given a very short deadline to eliminate terrorism and instructions to be very cautious while doing it. Bargaining on the date of the Contact Group's next meeting is obviously not just a test  whether Milosevic will fulfill his humanitarian obligations, but also a demonstration that time is ticking away for everybody in the Kosovo conflict.

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