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Radical Albanian Nationalists Gain Ground in Serbian Province

Boosted by ballot victories, hard-liners are pressuring Kosovo's leadership to abandon steps toward rapprochement with Belgrade

WHILE international peace efforts in the Balkans focus on ending the Bosnian war, Albanian nationalists in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo are pressing their leaders to pursue more aggressively their aspirations for sovereignty.

Kosovo's 2 million Albanians have long campaigned for independence from Serbia, which has spared few instruments of terror in its bid to subdue the separatist movement, human rights workers and Western diplomats here say.

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In the early 1980s, street protests were brutally suppressed by the Serbian police. Periodic waves of unrest followed, fueled by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's repressive measures, which culminated in 1990 when he revoked Kosovo's autonomy.

At about this time, with many militants in prison, Albanian tactics switched from confrontation to the passive resistance espoused by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Under the leadership of party chief and self-styled ``President of Kosovo'' Ibrahim Rugova, the party quickly became the dominant political force in the province, rejecting Belgrade's authority and setting up parallel institutions.

The LDK, though, has made no significant political gains over the years, while Serb persecution has escalated. This has spawned disillusionment among the Albanian population - providing fertile ground for a resurgence of radicalism, Serbian political analyst Bratislav Grubacic says.

Disenchanted with the slow pace of their community's struggle for independence from Serbia, Albanian nationalists in Kosovo are emerging as a powerful and possibly dangerous force.

The radicals are putting pressure on Kosovo's Albanian leaders to abandon tentative steps toward a rapprochement with the Serbian authorities, believing this would force them to renege on their quest for sovereignty.

And they are calling for an end to the leadership's policy of passive resistance - the Albanians' principal weapon against Belgrade over the past few years - claiming it has failed to promote the separatist movement.

Spurning any dialogue with the Serbian leadership and advocating a return to the violent street protests of the 1980s, the militants recently bolstered their standing in the LDK.

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On Sept. 5 and 6, the radicals made substantial gains in LDK leadership elections, triggering the Sept. 9 resignation of prominent moderates, Fehmi Agani and Edita Tahiri - which brought simmering divisions within the party to a head.

``The resignations were a victory for the party's radical faction, which advocates tougher methods in the ethnic Albanians' struggle, and a big blow for the moderates who feel nonviolence is the only way forward,'' said an Albanian political analyst in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, who asked not to be named.

Mr. Agani denounced the ``destructive tendencies'' of the radicals, believed to be led by Skender Kastrati and Hydajer Hiseni, former political prisoners who were jailed in the 1980s for organizing antigovernment demonstrations. He warned that the emergence of the militants would break up the LDK as they were ``incapable of promoting harmony.''

On Sept. 12, Rugova, an advocate of talks with Belgrade and the architect of passive resistance, persuaded his two allies to stay on by appointing more moderates to the party leadership. But it is unclear whether his efforts to avert a major rift within the LDK will succeed.

Failure to do so is likely to strengthen the hand of the militants and marginal extremist groups calling for armed rebellion. Already there are signs the latter are flexing their muscles.

``The Kosovo leadership is ready to make sacrifices for national ideals,'' declared UNIKOMB, an ultranationalist Albanian party, in a recent statement, proposing protest marches against the Serbian authorities. Such demonstrations could spark a violent backlash by Belgrade's security forces.

Rugova's backers in the Albanian capital of Tirana, under pressure from the United States to quell Albanian separatism in Kosovo and Macedonia, have also prodded him in this direction.

Milosevic too - in his new guise as Balkan peacemaker, which he acquired after turning on his former clients, the Bosnian Serbs - has apparently sought to coax Rugova into talks.

A week ago, a Serbian court released four Kosovo Albanians charged with planning armed rebellion. The unprecedented move appeared to reflect the beginning of a more conciliatory policy toward ethnic minorities in Serbia.

``We are ready to talk to Milosevic or to others. After all, all international factors are now talking to Milosevic,'' Rugova recently told the Albanian-language weekly Zeri.

But while both men seem keen on dialogue, their common ground ends there. Rugova stresses that talks can only go ahead in the presence of a third international party. Milosevic rejects such a condition, insisting Kosovo is an internal issue.

The minimum Rugova is prepared to accept is Kosovo becoming a republic within rump Yugoslavia. He's also called for confederal links with Albania in the event of the major powers granting the Bosnian Serbs such constitutional ties with Serbia. Milosevic is steadfastly opposed to both demands.

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