POLITICS-KOSOVO: Milosevic And Rugova Levered Into Talks

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, May 13 1998 (IPS) - News that Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic will have face-to-face talks with ethnic Albanian community leader Ibrahim Rugova, here Friday, comes not a moment too soon for the flashpoint province of Kosovo.

Fighting in the province has escalated, and on Tuesday spread to the province capital, Pristina. Massive numbers of new weapons have flooded into the province, toted by angry men on both sides.

But though the talks plan is a breakthrough — U.S. mediator Richard Holbrooke had said only the day before that the two sides were “far from compromise” — the talks could do no more than give them space to repeat their presently irreconcilable demand s.

The meeting was announced Wednesday by Holbrooke, in the region since Saturday, after a series of shuttle talks in Belgrade and Pristina.

“The meeting between President Milosevic and Dr Rugova will take place with no preconditions,” Holbrooke told an early morning press conference here. “The purpose of the meeting is to begin the dialogue.” It will be the two’s first meeting.

He said the two had agreed to follow up the May 15 meeting with a series of weekly meetings between their delegations.

The first clashes to take place in the Kosovo’s capital of Pristina itself were reported Tuesday. At least one ethnic Albanian was killed and one Serb policeman wounded in what was seen by all sides as a serious escalation. The city’s airport was closed

by new fighting the day before.

Serbian hardman Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 and rejects any foreign mediation in the crisis. Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s two million populace and strongly back autonomy or independence from Serbia.

“When one analyses the amount of weapons in the province”, Dejan Djordjevic, a Belgrade analyst says, “the picture is very grim. The VJ (Yugoslav Army) and the police are heavily armed, with everything they need, while the porous Yugoslav-Albanian bor der has enabled ethnic Albanians to obtain some very ‘good’ things too.”

Police experts estimate that nearly 300,000 out of the near 1.5 million guns looted by gangs during the crises in Albania last year, have already been shipped to Kosovo.

“Albanians in Albania do not care, in the nationalistic sense, for their (ethnic) kin in Kosovo,” says Milos Vasic, an analyst at the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme. “They sold weapons to Kosovo Albanians last year and still do, for money, pure and simple.”

These smugglers have much experience in traversing the tricky border routes. They spent years breaking sanctions against Serbia applied by the U.N. between May 1992 and October 1996 in punishment for Belgrade’s part in fomenting the war in Bosnia.

“Years of U.N. sanctions made them learn the smuggling routes by heart,” notes Vasic wryly. “Even their mules know them now.”

The arms supplies are largely financed by a three percent ‘tax’ on the 300-400,000 ethnic Albanians working abroad. The system was originally set up to fund the parallel system of education, health care and government set up in Kosovo as an alternative t o the Serb run state networks in the province.

But funds rose dramatically after Serb forces killed at least 80 people last February in a security sweep in Kosovo and major military operations against the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) were stepped up.

“We’ll try to match the (Serbs’) equipment,” Bardil Mahmuti, an ethnic Albanian based in Arau, Switzerland, who claims to be marshalling the supply. “We do not intend to buy tanks, but we do need anti-tank missiles,” he told Belgrade independent medi a recently. “We do not have aircraft, but we need anti-aircraft guns. When we get that, Serbia will ask for ceasefire.”

“The VJ’s Pristina corps has about ten thousand men,” says Bojan Dimitrijevic, a military analyst at the Belgrade Institute for Modern History. “Four brigades are also stationed in the towns of Urosevac, Kosovska Mitrovica, Pec and Djakovica, while tw o squadrons of MiG-21 (jet fighter-bombers) are at Pristina airport.”

“But it is the Serb police that has the main job on the terrain in villages and around them in Kosovo. The VJ has the job of keeping an eye on the Albanian border.”

“The policemen are sitting ducks for the UCK” a Western diplomat said. “The police counter-attack the nearby villages, trying to find those who attacked them, “and the fights go on and on, in circles”.

“We control the roads and fixed positions during the day,” a highly placed Serbian police source told IPS. But he admitted: “In the night, we are surrounded by thousands of enemies.”

Holbrooke was the architect of the Dayton peace deal that ended the fighting in neighbouring Bosnia-Hercegovina, but he says the Kosovo imbroglio is far more complex than the Bosnia crisis, or Croatia. Both were split from the old Yugoslav federation in 1991, but were brought into war by their large Serbian minorities.

Kosovo’s Serb minority is much smaller. “Kosovo is neither Croatia nor Bosnia” Dejan Anastasijevic, a military analyst says. “There are simply not enough Serbs in Kosovo, it’s as simple as that. Ninety percent of people living in Kosovo are ethnic Alb anians.”

All eyes will now be on the meeting Friday. “Until now, they (both sides) have backed themselves into their corners and the side which yields first risks a backlash from its supporters,” one Western diplomat said. “We’ll see what the reactions will be both among Serbs and ethnic Albanians now”.

“We are in a state of war,” said the UCK, in a statement carried by the Albanian language daily Bujku in Pristina. “We invite Albanian politicians to review their attitude to our situation. We appeal to liberation forces to join us in a common battle

front against the enemy.” UCK say they will not recognise any agreement to which they were not party.

But while the U.S. has so far called only for for “meaningful autonomy’ for the province, Rugova insists on independence of Kosovo — impossible for Belgrade to swallow. “On the other side,” Vasic says, “Belgrade is offering nearly nothing to Albania ns – it wants them almost to become Serbs or move out.”

“It is very difficult to find a spot the both sides could agree upon. They (both sides) have played the game of political paralysis too long.”

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