Copyright 1986 Reuters Ltd Reuters 

                                  May 27, 1986, Tuesday, BC cycle 

SECTION: International News 

LENGTH: 886 words 


BYLINE: By Peter Humphrey 



Ethnic conflicts are boiling again in Yugoslavia's wayward Kosovo Province, reviving nightmares that the country's federation may split at the seams.

In recent months serious nationalist tension has resurfaced between Kosovo's 1.7 million majority of ethnic Albanians and the region's minority of 200,000 Serbs and Montenegrins.

Authorities have smashed a plethora of separatist groups, and scores of Albanians have been jailed for activities allegedly aimed at bringing about Kosovo's secession from Yugoslavia.

The subject has filled the Belgrade press and dominated public debate, with fears expressed that the tensions could lead to a repeat of the kind of fierce nationalist riots which broke out here in 1981. Troops were then put on the streets and martial law was clamped on Kosovo.

Over 1,000 people have been convicted here since 1981 on charges of activities aimed at illegally changing Kosovo's status in the Yugoslav constitution, according to police figures.

Western diplomats are watching the troubled region, along the sensitive border with Albania, with great interest.

"It's Yugoslavia's 'Northern Ireland' -- a powder keg," one diplomat said, "and they're struggling to keep the lid on."

He echoed a view aired in official circles that Kosovo is Yugoslavia's single most pressing problem and will be one of the thorniest issues for the Communist Party Congress in June.

Some of the secessionist groups recently uncovered here were hoarding guns and explosives, official reports said.

Yugoslav officials have blamed Albanian and overseas emigres for funding such groups in the region, where ethnic Albanians outnumber the other nationalities eight to one.

Tensions rose to a peak this year over alleged Albanian harassment of Serbs and Montenegrins, who sent petitions to Belgrade or flocked there to protest and seek official help.

Protesters said Albanians were trying to create a pure Albanian Kosovo by driving others from their homes and land.

Belgrade, anxious to hold the fragile balance of races making up Yugoslavia's hodge-podge federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, has played down the conflict.

It urged restraint among both Serbs and Albanians, warning that Serb militancy could solve Kosovo's problems no more than Albanian militancy could.

Last month, at Kosovo Polje, near Pristina, it was Serb nationalism that almost sparked the prairie fire, when Kosta Bulatovic, a popular Serb leader, was arrested on "hostile propaganda" charges after organizing petitions.

Some 6,000 Serbs flocked to protest at Bulatovic's home and Belgrade had to fly down Serbian Communist Party leader Ivan Stambolic to defuse the tense confrontation with local police.

"If one Albanian policeman had opened fire on those Serbs, it would have been 1981 all over again," a Yugoslav said here.

Thousands more Serbs, meanwhile, organized protest trips to Belgrade and poured out their complaints to the authorities.

An official inquiry later found their grievances justified and a purge of the Kosovo judiciary and police was ordered.

It was found that local security and justice bodies had let Albanian offenses against Serbs go unchecked, including rape, assault, arson, intimidation and property offenses.

At ground level here it is hard to get to the truth. Both Serb and Albanian citizens told Reuters of similar charges against each other. The other side, each group said, was taking land and jobs.

Albanians said Serbs took the best farmland and got all the plum jobs. The region has around 50 per cent unemployment and a poll of local residents showed it was mainly Albanians who were out of work, while unemployment was rare among Serbs.

Belgrade argues it has in recent years poured funding amounting to millions of dollars into the region, Yugoslavia's poorest, to subsidize development and raise living standards.

As a result, Pristina is one of Yugoslavia's most impressive cities, with mosque minarrettes blending in among modern skyscrapers.

A few years ago, Albanians out for an evening stroll would stay on one side of the street and Serbs on the other, a tense line of animosity dividing them.

Today it is in the cafes.

"Serbs don't drink in Albanian cafes and we keep away from theirs," said one Albanian. "We want a republic," said his unemployed friend, sipping Turkish tea with a group of colleagues.

It is Belgrade's great nightmare because federal authorities fear that if Kosovo wins republic status, it will break away.

Kosovo is a heartland of the Serbs who originally populated it but many moved north after Ottoman onslaughts in the 14th century, leaving a vacuum filled by Turks and Albanians.

It became part of Serbia in 1945 and won autonomous status after widespread rioting in 1968.

"We know they will drive us out completely if they get their republic," said a middle-aged Serb whose ancestors have lived for centuries at Kosovo Polje, the site of the landmark 1389 battle when the Serbs were defeated by the Turks.

The Serbs' present battle seems faced with defeat also -- in the long term. The Albanian population is multiplying rapidly, while several thousand Serbs quit the province each year.

"It's just a question of time," said one Albanian. "It's dangerous to talk about this. But we will get a republic."

Back to older texts' page
Back to general texts' page

This page has been visited times.