Sunday, March 4, 2001
Fighting Outside Kosovo Raises Fears in Balkans
By DAVID HOLLEY, Times Staff Writer
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia--Two years ago this month, NATO launched its 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia to protect the majority ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo region. Now, the alliance is trying to cool down an upsurge of fighting just outside Kosovo's borders.
But ethnic Albanian grievances--both historical and recent--ensure that the task won't be easy.
Clashes between ethnic Albanian fighters and government forces in northern Macedonia and the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, have even triggered new international concern that a wider war could be brewing. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization responded last week with a series of measures aimed at dampening the smoldering crisis, including beefed-up patrols by U.S. troops at the Kosovo-Macedonia border.
In the Presevo Valley, Serbian authorities, ethnic Albanians and NATO representatives have been meeting to discuss a deal that would give ethnic Albanians a stronger voice in local affairs as the size of a buffer zone along Kosovo's border is gradually reduced.
The security zone was designed to separate NATO forces in Kosovo from Yugoslav forces, but it has instead become a haven for ethnic Albanian guerrillas--which NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said Tuesday is "unacceptable."
Robertson also declared that "NATO is committed to supporting the stability and security of . . . Macedonia, including the enhanced security of its borders."
Currently, armed ethnic Albanians control the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, adjacent to Kosovo and near the Presevo Valley. In recent days, the guerrillas have engaged in a tense standoff with Macedonian forces while U.S. troops have watched through binoculars from inside Kosovo.
On Friday, the pilot of a light observation plane from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo reported being shot at in the area. A KFOR spokesman said Saturday that security operations directly across the border from Tanusevci have been strengthened.
Yet people such as Naim Malaj, an ethnic Albanian shop owner in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo--which officially remains a province of Serbia but is under U.N. administration--can't see why NATO and many foreigners involved in Kosovo's affairs insist on blaming ethnic Albanians for the recent clashes. To him, the fault lies with unfairly drawn international borders.
"Nobody wants peace more than we do, but we cannot have it because they want to resolve the Albanian issue only partially," Malaj said. "First, the international community scattered us in different countries [as the Ottoman Empire broke up nearly a century ago]--and now they blame us for some 'Greater Albania.'
"All we want is the right to be free, which Slavs will never give to you. You have to take it from them."
One of the worries driving foreign involvement in Kosovo in 1998--when Washington pushed hard but unsuccessfully for a peaceful settlement to ethnic Albanian guerrilla attacks and Serbian repression--was fear that unresolved fighting could lead to a drive to create a "Greater Albania."
Western analysts worried that any such attempt to split ethnic Albanian areas from Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, the smaller republic in Yugoslavia, could lead to a broader war that might drag in Greece and Turkey--even though both are NATO members. This nightmare scenario had Greece supporting fellow Orthodox Christians in Macedonia and Yugoslavia, while Turkey, a Muslim nation, would support the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians. Some doubted whether Macedonia could still exist as an independent country after such a war.
Today, in a revised version of this fear, there is much talk by analysts of a possible attempt by ethnic Albanians to create a "Greater Kosovo," incorporating territory from southern Serbia, Macedonia and possibly Montenegro--but not necessarily uniting with Albania, which remains a much poorer society.
"There is a tendency toward worsening of the situation in southern Serbia, which can have a negative effect on the stability of Macedonia," Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said in televised remarks that indicated the depth of worries in his government. Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic, speaking after NATO announced its new stance, declared that "there's a prevailing feeling within NATO that the so-called security zone is the most dangerous place in Europe, that it is infested with terrorists and that something should be done about that."
But Haqif Mulliqi, head of the Journalists Assn. of Kosovo, argued that the growth of a guerrilla force in the Presevo Valley "was and remains a consequence of the Serbs' evil and criminal policy, which unfortunately is still present in the hot heads of Belgrade politicians."
The proposed reduction of the buffer zone from three miles to barely more than half a mile would "risk the physical well-being of the Albanians in those areas" because "the most notorious [Serbian] units that committed most of the crimes in Kosovo" are still based in the Presevo region, Mulliqi said. "This decision is gradually opening backward the pages of a bloody book."
Ever since NATO freed Kosovo from direct Serbian control by waging the 1999 air war, most ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have been convinced that independence is inevitable. Now, while they still hold that belief, they also have been disturbed by how quickly NATO member-states have improved their ties with the new democratic authorities in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, since the Oct. 5 ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The United Nations and NATO have never endorsed the idea of independence for Kosovo, preferring that it remain part of Yugoslavia. Thus, the province's ethnic Albanians, who make up about 95% of the population, fear that the international community will team up with its new friends in Belgrade to try to reinforce a continued link with Serbia.
"One of the reasons the Presevo problem has escalated is the fall of Milosevic in Belgrade," said Miranda Vickers, a London-based specialist in Albanian affairs for the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. "The Albanian community is horrified that the West is buddying up to Belgrade.
"I think in the long term we've got to accept that there will be an independent Kosovo, even if it takes another war to convince the international community that this is the only solution," Vickers said.
The ethnic Albanian drive toward Kosovo independence and cross-border ethnic unity is not the only factor fueling the latest fighting. A strong sense of injustice and discrimination also plays a role.
Ethnic Albanians living in the Presevo Valley "suffered tremendous harassment" after Serbian police and Yugoslav army forces pulled out of Kosovo in June 1999, Vickers said.
"This did start to radicalize people," she said.
One of the key demands of NATO in the current talks is that Serbian units accused of human rights violations in Kosovo during the 1998 and 1999 fighting be removed from the Presevo area before the buffer zone is reduced.
In Macedonia, meanwhile, most ethnic Albanians say that if they were accorded equal status--including full rights to use the Albanian language--then "they would accept that they are citizens of the Macedonian state," Vickers said.
But the fighters in northern Macedonia "have lost patience," she said. "There is a new, younger, more radical element of Macedonian Albanians."
Daniel Speckhard, an aide to Robertson who participated in talks Thursday between a NATO delegation and top Macedonian officials in Skopje, the capital, told reporters afterward that the conflict along the border with Kosovo "must be solved by political means."
"Solving it by other means may solve the short-term problem, but it can create larger problems for the inter-ethnic relations in your country," Speckhard said. "A military response is not the best mechanism to use."
On Friday, Nikola Dimitrov, security advisor to President Trajkovski, blasted back.
"It is a matter of great difficulty to use political means when you deal with terrorists in defending your territory," Dimitrov said. "This is very irresponsible on behalf of NATO. . . . Remaining passive will allow [the guerrillas] to strengthen their positions and go into other villages. It is only one village now, but if we do not take measures now, the problem might grow out of proportion."
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Special correspondent Blerim Gjoci in Pristina contributed to this report.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times