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Saturday, April 17, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW Scholar's Fears Of Kosovo Problem Ignored, She Says

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

In the fall of 1992, as Serbian mortar shells rained down on the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, a University of Washington professor warned of war breaking out in another, largely unknown province of Yugoslavia.

"The Kosovo problem is inherently dangerous," wrote Sabrina Ramet in the journal Foreign Affairs. "The longer Western statesmen put off military action (in the Balkans), the higher the stakes will become."

It wasn't the first time Ramet, 49, had written about the festering hatred between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, or implored the West to pay attention.

Since the early 1980s, the professor of Eastern European affairs at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies has published numerous articles for academic and foreign-policy journals predicting a bloody ethnic conflict in the province, a conflict that, she foretold, would eventually involve American and European military forces.

Most of her warnings were ignored or discarded by State Department officials and policy makers. At times, she said, it seemed a bit like crying wolf when only you can see the danger.

"The reason I was writing about it over and over was the massive violations of human rights against Albanians by Serb authorities. The situation was inherently unstable," she said.

"People really don't react very much until it becomes a major crisis, until it blows up. This has been one of the disappointments for me in all this."

While diplomats scramble to offer solutions to the current crisis, Ramet said there is only one viable outcome: the establishment of an independent Kosovo governed by ethnic Albanians.

That scenario, however, has not been widely discussed by European or American statesmen. Recent efforts have focused instead on returning refugees to the province under the protection of NATO troops.

"Kosovo should be independent of Serbia. This is so utterly fundamental, NATO may only be pretending to have doubts to seem like they are not changing course too rapidly," said Ramet.

Yugoslavia her focus for decades

Ramet's interest in the region stems from her family history; her mother is Austrian. Her father, who is Spanish, moved the family from London to a Los Angeles suburb when Ramet was 10.

After earning an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford in 1971 and a master's degree in international relations from the University of Arkansas three years later, Ramet began to study the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which existed from 1867 to 1918.

Her mother's heritage, coupled with an interest in ethnic issues and communism, led Ramet to study Yugoslavia, which has been her primary focus since 1978. She speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian as well as German.

In the past two decades, Ramet has traveled to Yugoslavia 10 times, interviewing subjects ranging from politicians to rock musicians.

Human-rights abuses by Serbs against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were relatively well known by the early 1980s, she said.

Ethnic Albanians were being fired from their jobs, beaten up and discriminated against. Albanian men were often falsely accused of raping Serbian women and sent to jail. In 1981, thousands of Albanian students at the University of Pristina rioted to protest Serb domination.

In her 1984 book "Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia," Ramet called the Kosovo crisis "the most trying and most intractable problem on Belgrade's agenda."

Others' response? `Disinterest'

Five years later, Ramet gave a presentation at a conference sponsored by a U.S. government agency - she declined to specify which one - attended by various State Department officials, including the ambassador to Poland.

"I told people that Yugoslavia was heading toward conflict, and I felt something should be done to avoid that outcome," she remembered. "The response was not disbelief, not agreement, but disinterest. I mentioned the possibility of casualties, refugees and chaos. The people in attendance were not impressed."

For Ramet, the NATO air campaign was not unexpected; she had publicly recommended surgical strikes against Serbian targets since 1992.

There is no bitterness or resentment toward those who had ignored her pleas for so long, she said. After all, diplomats chose to ignore a number of sources, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, that had documented the worsening situation for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo for years.

"People didn't need the works of Sabrina Ramet to know what was going on," she said. "Yugoslavian issues were ignored until it was essentially too late to do anything. For me, resentment would be an inappropriate word. It's disappointment."

Alex Fryer's phone message number is 206-464-8124. His e-mail address is: afry-new@seatimes.com ------------------------------- Letters from the front

Many readers have sent us personal, first-hand perspectives of the conflict in Kosovo and the Balkans. If you're willing to share e-mails from relatives or friends living in the Balkans, or those working there for relief agencies or others, please send them to kosovo@seattletimes.com

The Times won't reprint any accounts without first obtaining permission, so please include an e-mail address or other means of contacting the writer.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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