Waiting Game in the Balkans: Both Sides Feel Western Pressure


The fight between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Yugoslavia’s armed forces rumbled along uneasily Wednesday with each side glancing over its gun sights at the newly assertive power in the southern Balkans--NATO.

Two days after North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighter jets roared to within 10 miles of his borders with a warning to ease up, a defiant President Slobodan Milosevic continued moving armored columns through rebellious Kosovo province.

And a day after Milosevic offered to resume peace talks, Kosovo’s Albanian separatist leaders continued to refuse, insisting that his forces withdraw first.

With scattered clashes but no major offensives underway this week, the conflict looks like a low-intensity waiting game--hinging on which side will yield first to Western pressure. Milosevic hopes the rebels can be coaxed to the table; the rebels want NATO to come drive away his troops.

“We’re being especially cautious not to provoke NATO,” acknowledged Yugoslav spokesman Radovan Urosevic.

Working on both fronts for now, the United States and its European allies are quietly pushing for new talks while plotting scenarios for armed intervention. NATO contingency planning “is proceeding quite rapidly given the gravity of the situation,” said Robert Gelbard, chief U.S. negotiator in the Balkans. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is leaving open the possibility of unilateral military action by the United States.

But the question of how to halt Europe’s most worrisome conflict raises a tougher one: whether it is possible to forge a durable peace between increasingly hostile ethnic camps here without a consequence the West wants to avoid--further dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Put another way, the issue is this: If U.S. troops and pilots are to risk their lives in the Balkans again, could the presumed aim of their mission--peace within existing borders--ever be achieved in Kosovo?

The Yugoslav federation, which once was made up of six republics, split apart in 1991 when Slovenia, Croatia and then Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence, triggering a northern Balkan war that raged through 1995 until NATO’s belated intervention forced it to a halt.

Kosovo is a thornier problem. Less than a republic, it is a province of Serbia, which along with Montenegro is all that is left of the rump Yugoslavia. Albanians make up 90% of Kosovo’s 2 million people but are ruled by Serbian functionaries backed by the Yugoslav army and militarized Serbian police. A vast majority of people here want independence, and a growing number support the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla band formed last year.

Western officials oppose an independent Kosovo. They fear that another redrawing of boundaries along ethnic lines could trigger Bosnia-like conflicts across the southern Balkans. For example, they say, it could unravel neighboring Macedonia, which has a Slavic majority and an Albanian minority.

Milosevic, strongman of Serbia as well as Yugoslavia, has played on those fears in defending two brutal assaults on the separatists this year. Branding them terrorists, his apologists draw parallels to armed insurgents in Spain, Northern Ireland and even the United States.

“What if your ‘militias’ demanded the secession of Texas?” Bosko Drobnjak, Serbia’s chief spokesman in Kosovo, asked two American reporters. “We have a legitimate right to protect the integrity of our state too. Terrorism is a universal evil.”

While condemning the guerrillas along with Milosevic’s antiguerrilla tactics, American officials call for restoration of the autonomous status for Kosovo that Milosevic canceled in 1989.

But ethnic Albanian leaders insist that the sweeping crackdowns have burned all middle ground. Serbian police have emptied and set on fire large sections of villages targeted as supportive of the guerrillas. More than 250 people, most of them civilians, have been killed.

“Travel the road between Pec and Djakovica, and all you see are Serb police; they have cleaned out all the Albanian villages,” said Blerim Shala, spokesman for the Albanian negotiating team. “Further coexistence between the Serbs and the Albanian people is no longer possible.”

Even Serbian officials agree that an “autonomous” Kosovo would be difficult to hold within Yugoslav borders. “Autonomy would be the first step toward secession,” Drobnjak said.

Western leaders admit that they have no idea how to overcome the stalemate. “We don’t have a fixed formula,” Gelbard said in an interview. “We think that is up to the parties to determine. What is clear is we think the status quo is totally unstable.”

Another factor pushing the Albanians toward extreme positions is the explosive growth this year of the guerrilla movement, which is not a party to the peace talks that opened last month. Its demands are more radical than those of the civilian negotiators: The civilians want Milosevic’s troops out of Kosovo’s beleaguered western villages; the guerrillas want them out of Kosovo entirely.

“You can’t isolate the Kosovo Liberation Army,” said a civilian Albanian official, who estimated the rebels’ strength at 20,000 fighters. “They’re no longer just a couple of hundred gunmen.”

The growing divide between Serbs and Albanians here means that any compromise--if one could ever be reached--might require a long-term NATO presence to enforce. In Bosnia, it has taken 34,000 troops, thousands of foreign officials and billions of dollars to make the 1995 Dayton peace agreements hold.

If the West isn’t up for that, the cost of ignoring Kosovo could be a spread of the conflict beyond its borders, many officials warn.

Along Kosovo’s mountainous frontier, Yugoslav army troops have been shooting at ethnic Albanians fleeing toward Albania proper. On Tuesday, their bullets fatally wounded a citizen of Albania inside his country as he rode on horseback to cut wood, Albanian police said. The killing alarmed Albania’s leaders. They announced that their air force will hold defensive exercises near the border Friday.

Western officials say they expect to weigh options on Kosovo at meetings of NATO political leaders and the Balkan-monitoring Contact Group in the next few days. The Contact Group--the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia--last week demanded a cease-fire and withdrawal of Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo.

But Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin undermined the consensus by receiving Milosevic in Moscow on Tuesday and agreeing to a formula calling only for a halt in repressive action toward Kosovo’s civilians.

Western leaders said Wednesday that they are waiting to see whether Milosevic will comply with even that agreement. “We need 24 hours,” said Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini.

Among the options before NATO planners are: declaring a “no-fly” zone over Kosovo, hitting Serbian military positions with air strikes and sending in Western troops as peacekeepers. The first option would help neutralize the Yugoslav army’s advantage by depriving its troops of helicopter cover and is favored by ethnic Albanian leaders. NATO airstrikes would risk hitting civilians. A peacekeeping force would saddle the West with another Balkan protectorate, along the lines of Bosnia.

Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.