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Yugoslavia: U.S. Hopes For Calm In Southern Serbia

Yugoslav authorities have decided to give NATO more time to curb Kosovar Albanian separatists launching crossborder attacks in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley, before launching a threatened counterattack. The "indefinite" postponement in tensions brought a sigh of relief in the West, but not a resolution.

Washington, 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Renewed violence in Southern Serbia between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces in Kosovo has officials in Yugoslavia, Europe, and the United States again wondering how to assuage tensions that some fear could ignite the Balkans yet again.

The dilemma erupted late last week, when ethnic Albanian militants of the "Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac" attacked Serbian positions in the Presevo Valley, in what Yugoslav officials say is a bid to unite the area in southern Serbia with Kosovo. Although the area has a substantial ethnic-Albanian population, the valley is not part of Kosovo and therefore was not included in the agreement that sent NATO peacekeepers into the southern Serbian province.

Under terms of the deal that governed the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo after last year's NATO bombing campaign, only local Serbian police are allowed into the five-kilometer wide buffer zone on the Serbian side of the Serbia-Kosovo boundary.

But in recent days violence has flared anew, leaving four Serbian policemen and at least one ethnic Albanian youth dead.

Yugoslav authorities earlier threatened to send police reinforcements into the buffer zone by Monday, if NATO failed to stop ethnic-Albanians from infiltrating Kosovo by way of the zone. They later backtracked, but despite the decision to extend the deadline indefinitely in order to give diplomacy a chance, Belgrade has reportedly continued to bring in reinforcements.

How likely is the tension to erupt into a full-scale crisis? That is the question our correspondent put to Charles Kupchin, a professor of foreign affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kupchin told RFE/RL the decision by officials in Belgrade is "fortunate," in that it gives NATO and the U.S. time to try to gain greater control over the Albanian separatist movements operating in the Presevo Valley, many of whom Kupchin says are not necessarily controlled by moderate Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.

"NATO would much rather work through some sort of political structure than try to stave off the violence by deploying forces because, as we've seen in Mitrovica and elsewhere, NATO forces -- and particularly U.S. forces -- don't want to get in the middle. They don't really want to be in a situation where they could take casualties. So, you're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place in wanting to get the Albanians out of Presevo -- get some sort of political stability to the border area -- the buffer zone -- but do so in a way that avoids putting NATO troops at risk."

And therein, Kupchin says, lies the difficulty.

He said the incidents of recent days cast doubt on NATO's ability to control Kosovo. But of greater concern, Kupchin says, is that the tensions present a substantial challenge for newly-elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who now finds himself in the position of having to defend the area, without provoking the same international condemnation that accompanied former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo. And Kupchin says that dilemma, poses difficulties for the United States as well, particularly as Washington is just restoring diplomatic relations with Belgrade.

"I think the bigger problem in the short-term is what affect this has on Kostunica...whether it forces him to stand up and say I too am a nationalist, I am against what's happening here, and I'm going to crack down and then you see a further estrangement and a repolarization of Yugoslavia from the west. So, I think from a perspective of foreign policy and American diplomacy what you want to do is defuse this, get this off the front-page, so that Kostunica goes back to putting a government together, back to integrating Yugoslavia into Europe, and (is) not distracted by this question of Presevo Valley."

Kupchin adds that he does not think the timing of this latest problem is haphazard. He says a lot of ethnic Albanians were not particularly happy with the fact that Kostunica won the presidency, in that many feel their best case for independence from Yugoslavia was a Yugoslavia controlled by Milosevic. So, Kupchin said he thinks the violence is partly an attempt to get some trouble brewing and to increase the chances of a backlash to Yugoslavia, which then would potentially make Kosovo independence more acceptable to the West.

But the United States has long said it does not support the ethnic Kosovar Albanians' drive for Kosovo independence. And in the wake of the renewed violence in southern Serbia, U.S Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a special appeal for a halt in hostilities, saying it risked eroding the moral support Kosovo has traditionally had in the international community. It was a message State Department spokesman Phil Reeker reiterated, in an interview with RFE/RL.

"We've made it very clear throughout that there is no solution for either side through violence. And I want to underscore that these violent attacks by small groups of radical Albanians disrupt the process of establishing democracy and stability in Kosovo, and in the region. And we strongly condemn the violence and provocations and continue to call upon all parties to refrain from any violent confrontations."

Reeker characterized the situation in the southwestern Serbian region as a tense-calm, but said U.S. officials will continue to press the issue in a variety of avenues. Reeker said the issue had most recently been raised in Vienna by Secretary Albright in a meeting with Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic. Their talks, on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), were the first such senior level U.S.-Yugoslav talks since last year's NATO bombing campaign.

Reeker declined to comment on what actions the U.S. might take if officials in Yugoslavia backtrack yet again and decide ultimately to use force in order to contain the violence.

But Kupchin says more violence is exactly what the U.S. should expect. He said Americans and others are often far too naive about how long it takes for people to lay down their weapons, after they've been through the sort of conflicts that have beset the Balkans. In Kupchin's view, a tougher stance might be best.

"I think, ultimately, Bosnia and Kosovo would be better off if sort of run with a heavy hand. But in the current era, given the politically correct notions of self determination, that doesn't happen and so that's why we're in this very nebulous gray zone in trying to find a way to give self expression to the people of the region, but at the same time recognizing that if you allowed self-expression to take its course, most of the borders there would disappear overnight."

Kupchin says there needs to be a debate among key parties about where the U.S. and international community are heading in the Balkans. Ultimately, he says, the international community is going to have to make some tough decisions about the status of Kosovo, about its relationship to Yugoslavia, and about whether it makes sense to keep fighting to hold Bosnia together.

But for now, it would appear Kupchin, the U.S., Yugoslavia, and international community agree that time and space could still yet yield an acceptable political, rather than military, solution to the latest stand-off stirring in southern Serbia.