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Friday, August 13, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Peace Will Not Come Easily To Kosovo

Special To The Times

A COUPLE of weeks ago in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, I observed a protest demonstration. A couple of thousand people wound silently through the center of town carrying signs that read, "Release Our Loved Ones," and "Act Now, Tomorrow Will Be Too Late." The demonstrators were protesting the ongoing detention of up to 5,000 Albanian political prisoners in Serbian jails.

A few blocks away, a house that had been vacated by its Serbian owners stood smoldering after having been torched the night before. A message to Serbs: "Don't come back." Another house would be torched tonight, a Serb family forced out of their apartment, or a Roma (Gypsy) family intimidated into heading for Macedonia.

All raw emotions are on display in the streets of Kosovo: joy at the first taste of freedom, rage at the atrocities committed by Serbs during the NATO intervention, grief at the widespread loss of family, property and livelihood, and fear of the chaos and insecurity that the future may bring.

It is a rare occurrence that a place like Kosovo goes through the kind of transition it is presently experiencing. During this hopefully short period, NATO troops and U.N. personnel scramble to bring order to the province. The KLA and other indigenous political forces maneuver for power behind the scenes. And small bands of petty criminals, driven as often by greed as by revenge, commit mayhem against the Serbs and Roma still to be found in Kosovo.

Albanians suffered under 10 years of brutality by the Serb regime. Then there were three months of heightened atrocities in which an estimated 10,000 Albanians were killed and between 50,000 and 100,000 houses were destroyed. Given all this and the sudden, unexpected withdrawal of the Serbian forces, it is surprising that Kosovo is even relatively calm at this point. The question is, what will it take to bring peace to Kosovo?

During the recent NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, the United States alone spent over $3 billion. This money was spent in order to establish stability in southeastern Europe, where Milosevic's war was about to spread beyond Yugoslavia's borders. If the West is concerned about consolidating this stability, it will act quickly and firmly to establish the rule of law in Kosovo, so that ordinary people can get on with their lives in a secure environment.

Despite the pleas of international statesmen and local politicians for the inclusion of Serbs and Roma in the life of Kosovo, it looks like this is a lost cause. Too many crimes were committed against the Albanians, and their anger is too high. In any case, most of the Serbs and Roma have already left the province.

Besides the early establishment of order in Kosovo, the key remaining ingredient for stability in the province lies in Serbia. As long as the Milosevic regime exists, it will continue to promote turmoil in Kosovo and elsewhere. At this point, the main hope for change in Serbia is with the democratic opposition. However, real democrats among the Serbian opposition are hard to find.

The Serbian opposition leaders have not cured themselves of the rivalry, factionalism and careerism that were their downfall in 1997, after three months of massive street demonstrations. This adds to the burden of the Serbian people, who have a special responsibility at this time. Not only do they have to get rid of Milosevic, but they have to face up to their complicity in his prosecution of the wars of the past decade. Unfortunately, the sense of responsibility necessary to accomplish these things is in short supply.

It is urgent that the West devise ways to influence the development of democracy in Serbia. There is a likelihood that the turmoil within Serbia will explode by this fall. The West must also find a way to distinguish between sanctions against the Milosevic regime and collective punishment of the Serbian people. The Serbs will not learn any constructive lesson by freezing and starving this coming winter.

President Milosevic could remain in office anywhere between a few months and a few years. The results of his continued tenure are unpredictable, but Montenegrins, Vojvodinans, Albanians, Bosnians and minorities in Serbia - all victims of Milosevic's policies - should find this a worrisome prospect. The West is limited in the ways it can respond to Milosevic's ongoing destabilization of the region. But it should use its aid leverage over Serbia wisely to prevent him from starting yet another conflict in the war of Yugoslav dissolution that has to date lasted more than eight years.

The captivity of thousands of Kosovar Albanians in Serbian jails is an ongoing cause of anger and despair for the families of these people. Those held include the student leader Albin Kurti and the physician and poet Flora Brovina. The list of prisoners handed over to the International Red Cross by Serbian authorities last month only included 1,500 names. This means that several thousand more prisoners are in serious danger of abuse, perhaps even execution. The international community must exert all possible pressure to see that these people are released.

The most helpful development for Kosovo would be for the Serbian people to hand President Milosevic over to the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. Short of this, the international community must find ways to intervene in favor of the return of the 5,000 political prisoners to Kosovo. This would be a significant step towards peace in Kosovo.

Peter Lippman recently returned to Seattle after living for more than a year in Bosnia. He traveled throughout the region, where he researched refugee problems for a human-rights organization.

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

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