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Containing a Kosovo Crisis

A special envoy could help free Albanians from Serb apartheid

The long-predicted crisis in Kosovo seems fast approaching. Public anger, political stalemate, and international neglect are pushing the Albanian population in the Serb-dominated province toward a showdown with the regime of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

Pressures have been building for more than seven years since Belgrade's annexation of Kosovo.

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President Milosevic created a system of apartheid in which the Albanian majority (estimated at more than 90 percent) became second-class citizens. A policy of ethnic discrimination and police repression prevails.

The Albanians have responded not by taking up arms but by patiently constructing a parallel society and an alternative state structure. The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), led by President Ibrahim Rugova, rejected violence and public protests in order to avoid Bosnian-type massacres. The Kosovars built one of the Balkans' most impressive civic societies, with an alternative educational system, welfare service, youth organizations, and even a spectrum of political parties.

The Serbian administration misread the Kosovars' peaceful approach as weakness. Pacifism was mistaken for passivity. Police services continue to violate human rights with impunity. Twenty Albanians have been killed by security forces this year, and hundreds arrested or abused.

Radicalized youths

Public patience is nearing the breaking point as a result of several negative developments.

First, Albanian youths are becoming radicalized as a result of police brutality. Ominously for Belgrade, about 80 percent of the Albanian population is under 30. Youths see few employment prospects and fear a serious economic decline as Belgrade continues to exploit the region's resources without investing in it.

Second, Albanian leaders are under increasing criticism for failing to deliver a free Kosovo by peaceful means. LDK spokesmen fear one spark could ignite a mass revolt, with bloodshed worse than Bosnia's. The province is swarming with Yugoslav military, Serb special forces, police units, and heavily armed Serb residents in a sea of 2 million Albanians.

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The largest movement in opposition to the LDK - the Parliamentary Party, led by longtime political prisoner Adam Demaci - demands more open resistance to Belgrade. Mr. Demaci and others urge various nonviolent policies to disrupt Serbian rule and refocus world attention on Kosovo. But the LDK fears Milosevic could use peaceful protests as a pretext to stage a massacre or engage in full-scale "ethnic cleansing."

Terrorism is on the rise in Kosovo. The clandestine Movement for the Liberation of Kosovo claims responsibility for the killing of several of Belgrade's Albanian collaborators. Among unemployed and desperate youths, the Liberation Movement may appear an attractive alternative to police intimidation and humiliation. Both the LDK and the Parliamentary Party are concerned about radicalism and terrorism, but they can do little to prevent it without firmer Western backing.

A third negative development is the widely perceived failure of the international community to protect the Kosovars. There is a growing view in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, that Europe and America may betray the Albanians in the forlorn hope of democratizing Serbia and unseating Milosevic in the upcoming elections. Albanian leaders are outraged by recent US statements that Kosovo needs to be resolved in the context of Serbia's territorial integrity. There is absolute consensus that return to autonomous status within Serbia is unacceptable. If the LDK were to support such an option, radical groups would rapidly gain ascendancy.

America under scrutiny

Europe is not considered a serious player in Pristina, but any US moves are closely scrutinized. Albanians have been told to remain patient until after Serb elections this fall. But they doubt Belgrade's policies will change, whoever wins. Neither the ruling Socialists nor major opposition parties support self-determination for Kosovo, though some privately concede Kosovo remains a noose around Serbia's neck and the best ultimate solution would be separation.

The Kosovars must have proof of progress. Otherwise, they may no longer adhere to US demands for restraint and could ignore appeals by their own leaders. The "small steps" policy of Belgrade-Pristina dialogue on issues such as educational rights has evidently failed. Milosevic is not serious about concessions and merely plays with negotiators to entice the US to lift the "outer wall" of sanctions on Yugoslavia.

A bold initiative is needed to avoid a catastrophe in Kosovo that could destabilize the south Balkans. Washington should appoint a special envoy with a role similar to that of Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia two years ago. Then a high-level conference in Pristina should be open to all constructive options for settling the crisis and deciding Kosovo's status. The envoy's objective would be a Pristina agreement and a timetable for its implementation.

The most viable midrange option is federalizing Kosovo in a three-republic Yugoslavia (with Serbia and Montenegro). For this, both sides must yield uncompromising positions. Such a solution would avert militancy and bloodshed as well as further isolation and punishment of Belgrade if massacres were to occur in the region. Without such a solution under US sponsorship, Kosovo is heading for disaster.

* Janusz Bugajski, recently back from Kosovo, is director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.

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