Some Serbs see Kosovo slipping War: With ethnic Albanian forces growing stronger in the separatist Yugoslav province, many Serbs are cutting their losses and pulling out instead of joining the fighting.

Sun Journal

July 21, 1998|By Justin Brown | Justin Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Ratko Djukic, a Serb, wears dark sunglasses and glances nervously over his shoulder as he loads his family's belongings into a canvas-covered moving truck.

He may have heard the curses muttered by a friend passing on the street. "I'm not fleeing," he insists. "This is only temporary."

Like many Serbs, Djukic sees little future for him in Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian-dominated southern province of Serbia. The economy is bad, the ethnic Albanians are growing in number, and an all-out war seems inevitable.

With each day, Kosovo seems to be slipping away from the Serbs.

"Everyone I know wants to sell their flats," says Jelena Nesic, an English professor at the Serbian University of Pristina. "They want to go because they think this will become another Bosnia. I see moving trucks on the street every day and that's terrifying."

Officials estimate that 25 percent to 30 percent of Kosovo's 200,000 Serbs have left in the past four months.

What's worse for the Serbs, their security forces seem unmotivated to take on the rapidly growing guerrilla movement known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. While the independence-seeking movement has mushroomed from a few hundred armed villagers into a battle-hardened force of about 15,000, Serbian soldiers have been going AWOL.

Hundreds of Serbian policemen and soldiers recently abandoned their posts in Kosovo and returned to their homes in the north. And Milo Djukanovic, the president of Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up postwar Yugoslavia, is trying to recall any Montenegrin conscripts who have been stationed in Kosovo. Political leaders in the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina are making similar demands.

It's a far cry from the early 1990s, when Slobodan Milosevic stirred up a vicious wave of nationalism and rode it to the presidency of Serbia and then of federal Yugoslavia.

He portrayed Kosovo as the Serbian Mecca: It is the home of scores of 14th-century monasteries, and the site where the Serbs lost the fabled battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, precipitating 500 years of subordination to the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Inspired young Serbs signed up to fight for their brethren in Croatia and Bosnia. "You had lots of guys keen on adventure who wanted to go," says Nenad Canak, the president of an opposition political party in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. "Now people know what war is. They want nothing to do with it."

To Uros Romic, a draft-age college student, Kosovo isn't worth fighting for.

"I don't like the Albanian people," he says after lunch at a McDonald's in Belgrade. "We are two different religions, two different nations. There can never be love between us. But this is not a fight in the interest of the Serbian people, it's a fight in the interest of Slobodan Milosevic."

Indeed, Milosevic's very survival may depend on the outcome in Kosovo, where last year 1.8 million ethnic Albanians outnumbered Serbs 9 to 1.

"His survival hinges upon keeping Kosovo in limbo," says a Western diplomat in Kosovo. "That's why I don't think he's in a position to bargain with Kosovo."

Milosevic has ruled Yugoslavia as a dictator for the past decade, during which time he has accelerated the breakup of the country, lost wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and plunged his people into poverty. Although a "Greater Serbia" has been his driving ambition, the country has only shrunk under his helm.

Nevertheless, through his control of state media and the ineffectiveness of opposition politicians, Milosevic won a four-year term last summer as president of Yugoslavia.

Shortly thereafter, he began his campaign in Kosovo. On Feb. 28, he launched a bloody attack aimed at the burgeoning Kosovo Liberation Army.

By killing women and children and making a martyr of KLA leader Adem Jashari, Milosevic fueled the rapid growth of the armed ethnic Albanian independence movement, which controls an estimated 40 percent of the countryside. As one Albanian put it, "When the police come to your house to kill you, you have no choice but to fight."

"I think that Belgrade is primarily responsible here," President Clinton recently said.

The United States and most other Western powers support greater autonomy for Kosovo, but not outright independence.

With autonomy, the ethnic Albanians would suddenly join the political process, and Milosevic would likely lose his slight majority in the federal Parliament. Milosevic would also become an easy target for opposition parties, who could cast him as the man who lost Kosovo. Without war, Milosevic could not use nationalism to gain support -- and he would have to concentrate on other issues, such as the economy.

Milosevic stands to gain more by keeping the Kosovo book open and eventually drawing international intervention to Yugoslavia, diplomats say. He could then use the Americans as a scapegoat -- as he did in Bosnia -- and stay in power.

In the meantime, Kosovo increasingly looks like a war zone. Major roads are blocked, the death count is more than 300 and rising, and about 70,000 ethnic Albanians have fled their homes. While the KLA fluidly takes village after village, the Serbian forces rely on their numbing firepower, leveling towns but hardly making a dent in their opponents' strength.

To bolster their forces, Serbian officials have begun to arm their few remaining die-hard civilians and to encourage them to fight on their own -- a dangerous trend that diplomats say resembles the Bosnian experience.

The irregular fighting in Kosovo comes just as the international community has begun to press for a cease-fire. But, according to diplomats in the region, armed civilians could endanger the prospects for peace because they are not so easily controlled by the centralized government in Belgrade.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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