The southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo is the most volatile flashpoint in the inflammatory Balkan region.
Whereas the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia largely were contained within their own borders, a conflict in Kosovo has the potential to ignite a war throughout the Balkans, involving several nations.
That is why the United States is so alarmed at the current repressive police measures being adopted by Yugoslav authorities against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo. It is why Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spurred five other nations at a meeting here Monday into adopting sanctions against the rump Yugoslav state.
Kosovo is a powder keg because of the clash of Albanian and Serbian nationalism on its impoverished territory.
If the two ethnic groups go to war, the conflict probably would spread to Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Bulgaria and Greece could be drawn in as well.
Ninety percent of the Kosovo population is ethnic Albanian, and therefore Muslim. They live on land that is sacred to Serb nationalists, who consider it the cradle of their Serbian Orthodox civilization.
Hatred between the two groups has a long history. In 1389, on a site in Kosovo known as the Field of Blackbirds, a Serbian army under Prince Lazar was defeated by a superior Ottoman Turkish force, and Lazar, who had chosen death over surrender and betrayal of his people, was put to death.
The battle ushered in 500 years of Turkish Muslim domination of Serbia. It symbolized for Serbs their refusal to bow to foreign subjugation and fed a historical sense of victimization.
It was in Kosovo in April 1987 that Serbian Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic, now president of the rump Yugoslav state, wrapped himself in the mantle of Serb nationalism and unleashed the events that led to war and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The late Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito had promulgated a constitution in 1974 that devolved considerable power to the six Yugoslav republics and gave autonomy to the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.
The minority Serbs in Kosovo, who number about 200,000, chafed under the political domination of ethnic Albanians. They told tales of being forced out of their homes, of rapes and of harassment.
Milosevic went to Kosovo in 1987 to listen to the grievances of the local Serbs and was met by thousands of demonstrators shouting about Albanian oppression. The demonstration began to turn violent, and police used batons to drive back the crowd.
Then Milosevic went onto a balcony and declared, “No one should dare to beat you.” It became a rallying cry of Serb nationalism and established Milosevic as the protector of all Serbs.
The popularity he gained from that event enabled him to oust the Serbian president and exploit Serb nationalism in a way that led to wars between Serbia and Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia and finally the multiethnic war in Bosnia.
In 1989, Milosevic ended Albanian autonomy, dismissed its Parliament and imposed direct rule from Belgrade.
They maintain that Serbs have tried to colonize the province by firing thousands of Albanians from their jobs and replacing them with Serbs. Perhaps a quarter million Albanians have fled Kosovo over the years to seek work in Western Europe.
Albanians say many of their number have been shot dead by Serbian police and thousands have been held as political prisoners.
The Serbs accuse the Albanians of wanting to secede from Yugoslavia and join the province to neighboring Albania. But Rugova and his followers say their aim is independence and the development of close ties with all their neighbors, including Albania and Serbia.
The international community opposes the secession of Kosovo, in part because of concerns that an independent Kosovo would upset the balance between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in neighboring Macedonia. The breakup of Macedonia could draw Bulgaria and Greece into a Balkan war, in the view of Western diplomats.
United Nations peacekeepers, including U.S. troops, have been stationed in Macedonia since 1991 to preserve its unity.
Rugova and his followers have pursued a policy of peaceful resistance to Serb domination, but in June 1996 Rugova’s moderate position began to be challenged by leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army. They launched a campaign of separation by attacking and killing Serb police.
It was Milosevic’s determination to wipe out the KLA that led to the indiscriminate attacks by Serb special police and other security forces on Kosovar villages last week. More than 80 people have been killed, and thousands made refugees by the fighting.
Noel Malcolm, a British historian and leading authority on the former Yugoslavia, argues that European and American diplomacy has made the conflict between Albanians and Serbs more acute and shored up Milosevic’s power. He said there was a chance of a negotiated Kosovo settlement that came and went with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia in November 1995.
Instead of establishing the machinery for a negotiated solution in Kosovo, the Dayton accords simply set up an outer wall of sanctions that were intended to stay in place until the Kosovo issue was resolved.
Recently, the United States and Europe found Milosevic willing to cooperate in helping to install a more pliant Bosnian Serb leadership. Two weeks ago, he was rewarded with a promise that some sanctions against Yugoslavia would be lifted.
That might have led Milosevic to conclude that he could act with greater impunity in dealing with separatists in Kosovo. If so, the sixnation meeting Monday in London set out to disabuse him of that notion as it imposed fresh sanctions on Yugoslavia and warned of tougher measures if he does not lift his repression in Kosovo.