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Yugoslav officials try to cool ethnic tensions in border province

Beneath the surface, the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia's troubled Albanian province of Kosovo simmers on almost as hotly as summer on the sun-baked shores of the Adriatic. The flight from the province of thousands of Serbs, fearing for the future at the hands of the Albanian majority, has abated. But the government has given priority to the issue of migration in its program to promote confidence and security for the minority and to improve this backward region's economic growth.

``The program is long term,'' said Franc Setinc, a member of the top-ruling presidency of the Yugoslav Communist Party, in an interview this week. ``But unless we can achieve our immediate aim, which is to secure the return of the Serbs to Kosovo, the situation can easily boil up again.''

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Since 1982, a year after a Albanian student-led riots in Kosovo, 22,000 Serbs have fled the province, leaving homes and property behind them.

The tensions of many years stem from the discontent of Kosovo's 1.7 million Albanians about the economy and the fears of a Serb minority that is now reduced to fewer than 200,000 and has a status far below the dominant ``colonial'' role it exercised in the province for decades.

Despite massive federal aid since the 1970s, Kosovo's living standards at all points lag behind the Yugoslav average. The number of unemployed people in the province actually exceeds the number of workers; the jobless are principally univerity and high school dropouts - mainly Albanian youth.

The Serb population in the province has been in decline ever since World War II, following which the Albanians gained their own schools with their own language recognized for the first time in Serbian history. The Serbs made no secret of their resentment of this Albanian ``expansionism'' in a region that they regard historically as the cradle of their own culture.

Under President Josip Broz Tito, there was an uneasy truce. But, a year after his death, Kosovo erupted into bloody riots. Only the ruthless use of the Army prevented the fighting from escalating into open civil war in the province.

On the Albanian side, further bitterness was stored up by the subsequent imprisonment of several thousand demonstrators and supposed agitators, again mainly among the young. On the Serbian side, fears mounted under the steady harrassment against people and property that drove the Serbs to leave communities that had been their family homes for generations.

Since last year, the militant nationalists among the Serbs have increasingly threatened to ``take up arms to defend ourselves'' if Belgrade did not move effectively to curb the Albanian pressures. They staged emotional marches to Belgrade. The federal government has since tried to ensure them ``safe conduct'' and a return to new homes in newly aid-supported Serbian communities. Some 3,000 Serbs have reportedly returned.

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But so far the federal government has touched on only the fringe of the migration problem, as a 16-hour session of the Communist Party's Central Committee June 26 showed. Up to a thousand Kosovo Serbs - elderly peasants, young people, a writer, and a professor or two among them - came to Belgrade for the occasion. They stood patiently through the day and far into the night in a small park by the side of parliament where the party committee sat. They did not know what was going on inside; their leaders had departed from a long-established Yugoslav practice of openness, in which major party occasions are broadcast live to the public at large.

The crowd only got restive late in the evening, when two small groups of protesters that were allowed into the building to present ``petitions'' returned empty handed. The people outside started shouting slogans, until the police quietly shepherded them to the buses waiting to take them home.

Most impartial observers, including the many Serbs who distance themselves from their noisy compatriots' extreme nationalistic view of Kosovo, believe the danger of worse confrontation has been averted, for now.

Most of Kosovo's Albanians are well aware that their living standards are much better than those across the mountains in Albania. And the nationalists' call for an end to Kosovo's autonomy within Serbia (with direct rule from Belgrade in its place) does not find much support from the majority in the republic of Serbia itself.

The heart of the problem is ethnic. ``We have never liked each other and it will take a long time to change that,'' said a Serb, though not anti-Albanian, journalist in Kosovo. ``But if the economic gap can be narrowed, it would mean much to reduce such differences in feeling.''

The economic panacea depends primarily on federal aid generated mainly by the prosperous Yugoslav republics. But these republics have been increasingly disgruntled by the way in which the leadership in Kosovo has often applied it to grandiose public buildings at the expense of basic socially more necessary amenities.

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