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Yugoslavia: Conflict Could Move To Albania

London, 29 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A report by a non-governmental organization in Brussels warns that the presence of separatists in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) near Albania's border could encourage the Yugoslav Army attacks that bring the fighting onto Albanian soil.

The report is by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), a private organization committed to helping the international community understand and respond to impending crises. The ICG is funded by charitable foundations, companies and individuals. It also is backed by western governments including the U.S.

The report sets out to give what it calls the "View from Tirana -- The Albanian dimension of the Kosovo crisis." It notes that relations between Albanians and their ethnic kin in Kosovo are complex. Despite linguistic and cultural ties, the political division of the past 80 years and Albania's isolation during the communist period have caused the communities to evolve in very different fashions.

Recent reports that some Kosovo Albanians are smuggling drugs and weapons have caused resentment among Albanians, most of whom were too preoccupied with the struggle for daily existence to devote much thought to national questions.

But the upsurge of violence in Kosovo and the influx of several thousand Kosovo Albanian refugees has, nevertheless, reminded Albanians of the links between the two communities. Sympathy for their ethnic kin in Kosovo is especially strong in the border areas among the Ghegs of northern Albania.

Tirana's response to the Kosovo violence has been restrained. But the government --dominated by the Tosks of southern Albania-- is inevitably under pressure to adopt a more aggressive response.

This restraint has brought into question the administration's nationalist credentials, both with the Kosovo Albanians and within Albania proper, especially among the Ghegs. The policy has "played into the hands of ex-president Sali Berisha "who is exploiting the Kosovo conflict to mount a political comeback."

Berisha was forced to resign last year in the wake of an uprising against his rule following the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes in which many Albanians lost their life savings. His party was subsequently defeated in the elections of May, 1997.

Like the Kosovo Albanians, Berisha is a Gheg and comes from Tropoje on the Kosovo border. This part of the country is largely beyond Tirana's control and the KLA operates there openly.

The ICG report says: "Given the weakness of the Albanian army and latent hostility between Ghegs and Tosks, there is a danger that the KLA will, in time, extend its theater of operations to Albania proper."

It says: "Moreover, as the KLA consolidate their presence in Tropoje, the Yugoslav Army may feel compelled to attack the town, thereby bringing the conflict onto Albanian soil."

The report says Albania's attitude toward Kosovo and the ethnic Albanians of the former Yugoslavia was largely dismissive during the communist period between 1945-1992 when, as today, the country's elite was largely made up of Tosks. But relations between Albanians and the Kosovo Albanians were transformed after Berisha became president in 1992. Although forced by U.S. pressure to abandon calls for the unification of all Albanian-inhabited regions of the Balkans, he "made the national question a priority and forged strong links with the Kosovo Albanian leadership."

The new socialist-led government of Fatos Nano "has steered a very different course to Berisha, much to the disappointment of Kosovo Albanian leaders." It has forged good relations with Greece and Macedonia; and has supported efforts of the so-called Contact Group to resolve the Kosovo crisis. It has sought only the status of a "third republic" for the majority-Albanian province, and the deployment of NATO forces along its borders. However, that said, the Nano government policy is shifting as a result of the on-going violence in Kosovo and popular pressure at home. Its restraint is evolving into overt support for, in Nano's words, "the people of Kosovo taking up arms in order to defend their lives and property."

The Albanian government has intercepted some arms supplies intended for the KLA in those regions it controls. However, the bulk of weapons going into Kosovo enter from regions of northern Albania beyond Tirana's control around border towns like Tropoje, Kukes and Bajram Curri. The OSCE and EU have teams of monitors in these border areas. Yet in the remote Albanian highlands, it is almost impossible to detect all the mule tracts over the mountains.

The report says: "Given local sympathy for the plight of Kosovo's Albanians, the poorly-equipped Albanian border guards can do little but monitor the comings and goings of KLA fighters."

The ICG makes the following recommendations aimed at easing tensions and building stability in the region:

1) Diplomatic pressure on Berisha to "refrain from exploiting the Kosovo crisis for his own political goals,"

2) International assistance for the Albanian border police to monitor more actively the Albanian-Kosovo and Albanian-Macedonian frontier,

3) Scrutiny of the activities of Kosovo "diaspora" support groups in the west, and

4) International relief agencies to direct aid for Kosovo Albanian refugees away from the border to territory controlled by Tirana.

The ICG currently operates field projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.