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Serbia: Why The Kosovo Crisis Now?

Prague, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - The Kosovo imbroglio appears to have entered a new stage following a weekend of violence that left at least 20 dead. There are at least three reasons for the change in the Kosovo political scene, the most important of which is the emergence over the past year of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).

Over the weekend of 28 February-1 March, Serbian police sealed off at least ten ethnic Albanian villages in the Srbica-Glogovac-Drenica region west of Pristina. Serbian police spokesmen said that the action was aimed at capturing "terrorists" (i.e. the UCK), who had ambushed and killed four Serbian policemen Saturday.

Kosovar spokesmen, however, charged that the Serbs were themselves carrying out indiscriminate terror with automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and helicopters against civilians, including women and children. Veton Surroi, Kosovo's most prominent journalist, today said the special Serbian police involved in the crackdown are veterans of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and hence are "almost paramilitaries."

But how is it that matters have come to such a point? After all, for many years Kosovo was known as "the time bomb that does not explode."

There were two main reasons why Kosovo remained relatively quiet for most of the time since then-Serbian (now Yugoslav) President Slobodan Milosevic destroyed the mainly ethnic-Albanian province's autonomy in 1989. First, the Kosovar leadership under Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) held the unquestioned leadership of the province's ethnic Albanians. Rugova and his party are committed to policies of non-violence and of "internationalization," or of achieving a solution by bringing foreign pressure to bear on Milosevic.

Second, the Serbian authorities had no need to "crack down" on Kosovo or stage military actions as they did in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia for the simple reason that the Serbs already held all the levers of power in Kosovo. The only "threat" to Serbian authority was Rugova's shadow state, which, in any event, busied itself with matters such as education, health care, and political feuds among its leaders.

All that has changed since at least the end of 1996. At approximately that point, the shadowy UCK changed its tactics from carrying out occasional, random, hit-and-run raids to conducting more frequent, well-planned and well-executed moves against individual Serbs, Serbian institutions, or Albanians, whom the UCK regards as collaborators. The UCK has meanwhile successfully established a geographical power base in much of the area between Pristina and the Albanian frontier, and some communities there have become no-go areas for Serbs, at least at night. Armed incidents have increased in this region, moreover, in recent weeks.

There are three basic reasons for the UCK's emergence as a force to be reckoned with. First, the consensus has grown, particularly among young Kosovars, that Rugova's policies have reached a dead end. A spokesman for the LDK yesterday admitted in London that the peaceful policy "has brought no results."

Second, is what might be called the lesson of the Dayton agreement, which ended the Bosnian war at the end of 1995.

Some Kosovars argue that the international community intervened to impose a peace in Bosnia, only because the foreigners had come to regard the continuing violence there as unacceptable. According to this argument, the major powers will intervene in Kosovo only in response to an armed conflict there. Ergo, this train of thought concludes, the Kosovars must provoke a war with the Serbs if the Kosovo question is ever to attract the attention of the international community.

The third development involves the changes in Albania over the past year. Before the collapse of law and order there exactly one year ago, President Sali Berisha conducted a policy that was supportive of the Kosovars, who knew that they had friends in official Tirana. Berisha openly backed Rugova's goals and peaceful policies, and Rugova was a frequent visitor to Albania. In the past year, however, a Socialist government has come to power that has not always been clear regarding its policy towards Kosovo. Many Kosovars fear that Prime Minister Fatos Nano wants to cut a deal with Belgrade at Pristina's expense. Furthermore - and perhaps most importantly - the collapse of law and order in Albania provided a ready source of abundant and cheap weapons for Kosovar guerrilla fighters.

There are, moreover, at least two additional reasons for the timing of the Serbian crackdown besides the increased violence by the UCK. First, the shadow state's presidential and parliamentary elections are slated March 22, and Milosevic may want to provoke confusion in order to ensure that the vote is postponed indefinitely. A successful election, by contrast, would mean a Kosovar leadership with unquestioned legitimacy to challenge Serbia in international forums.

A second reason has been identified by Surroi and by independent Serbian journalists alike, namely that the major powers may have led Milosevic to think that he has a green light in Kosovo. Those who support this view note that U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard, on his recent trip to the region, stressed that Kosovo is Serbia's internal affair and criticized the UCK as well as the Serbian police. In June 1991, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker delivered a similarly ambiguous message to Belgrade. The Yugoslav army attacked Slovenia shortly thereafter.