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Balkan Report: June 10, 1998

10 June 1998, Volume 2, Number 23

Dramatic Developments Unfold. This week's "Bosnia Report" comes from Tirana, Albania, a country to which up to 20,000 Kosovars have fled since May 29. On that day, the Serbian forces launched their biggest offensive in Kosova to date. The pictures and footage on the private and government television channels in Albania all tell the same story, one that is well known to those who followed President Slobodan Milosevic's wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

In this familiar pattern, utilities are cut off in various villages, which Serbian forces in a variety of uniforms subsequently occupy. The defenseless civilian population is robbed and marched out of their village, which has meanwhile been shelled and burned. The Serbs often separate women, children, and the elderly from men of fighting age, some of whom are then shot in front of their families. The BBC on June 5 reported unarmed men being shot in the back. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan charged that same day that the Serbs had committed "atrocities," including the shooting of unarmed civilians.

Meanwhile, Milosevic's Serbia continues to produce what it has always produced in abundance: refugees. This time they are primarily Kosovar Albanians, some tens of thousands of whom have fled their homes in the face of the armed offensive. Many have gone elsewhere in Kosova or are hiding in the hills and forests near their now-gutted homes. RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on June 5 that up to 20,000 have arrived in northeast Albania, which is the poorest region of Europe's poorest country. Another 10,000 have gone to friends and family in Montenegro, and unspecified additional numbers have headed for Macedonia and even for Sarajevo. Greece has set up reception centers along the border with Macedonia, which are intended to accommodate refugees for up to 36 hours.

On June 6, Radio Montenegro quoted Yugoslav sources as saying that "armed Albanians" had attacked a Yugoslav border patrol along their common frontier. It is too early to tell whether this report is an isolated development, or whether it heralds a move by Milosevic to export his war to vulnerable Macedonia. Police and other authorities in that republic have been visibly nervous for weeks lest armed conflict break out between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the 20-25 percent ethnic Albanian minority. Many observers say that the real danger of the Kosovar conflict is that it could ignite the Macedonian tinderbox, which in turn could set off a Balkan-wide conflagration.

Albania Struggles to Cope. Albania, with foreign assistance, is meanwhile doing what it can to deal with the massive influx of Kosovars. The Tropoja region, where most have arrived, is essentially a geographic extension of Kosova's rolling plain. In pre-communist times, Tropoja traditionally had stronger economic and social ties to Kosova rather than to lowland and southern Albania, from which it is separated by high mountains. Supplying the refugees and possibly bringing them to the lowland population centers will not be cheap or easy. Tropoja's main link to most of the rest of Albania is via a rusty ferry that leaves Fierza to the south of Tropoja and Bajram Curri. The entire northeast region is regarded as wild and lawless, even by Albanian standards.

But the Kosovars enjoy widespread support in Albania. The president, prime minister and foreign minister have all accused Serbia of genocide and ethnic cleansing. A private radio station close to the opposition Democratic Party (PD) has collected large amounts of goods and money to aid the refugees. Nonetheless, the PD leadership has not succeeded in its attempt to use the Kosovar issue to wrong-foot the government by accusing Prime Minister Fatos Nano of being a covert ally of Milosevic. Moreover, PD leader and former President Sali Berisha may have lost what remaining credibility he has abroad by praising the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) and saying that Albania must not wait for the international community to act but must itself "prepare for the war option," as the daily "Albania" reported on June 6.

Berisha presumably knows that Albania's military is in no condition to fight anybody. But his remarks nonetheless reflect widespread disappointment with what is seen here as the hesitant response of the international community to a repetition of Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing and genocide. Ramiz Alia, the last communist dictator, wrote in "Koha Jone" on June 7 that the international community is making the same mistakes that it made in Bosnia. But just before the latest Serbian offensive in the Decan area began, Rifat Blaku, who is deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Party of Kosova, told RFE/RL's "Radio Most" (Bridge) program that he is confident that the international community will not allow a repetition of the Bosnian inferno. Now, however, as tens of thousands of Kosovars flee their homes, many observers in Tirana say that the international community is behaving more like the much-maligned "ice-cream men," whom it deployed as monitors in the early stages of the Croatian war, than like the highly successful Rapid Reaction Force that helped bring Milosevic to Dayton.

What of Brother Sava? One set of voices that has gone largely unheard in the current conflict is that of the Serbs of Kosova. Their spokesmen argue that average Serbs are subjected to intimidation and, in effect, ethnic cleansing by the Kosovar Albanians. Many Serbs also feel abandoned or betrayed by Milosevic. One of them is Orthodox Bishop Artemije, who has bravely opposed Milosevic and called for Serb-Albanian reconciliation. His assistant, Brother Sava, was last heard of in late May. Sava was cut off in the historic Decan monastery with terrified Serbian refugees at a time when Milosevic's forces and the UCK fought outside his gates.