Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Legacy of Milosevic still haunts Kosovo

By CNN's Kevin Drew
(CNN) -- The portrait of Slobodan Milosevic that hung at Pristina's train station was massive, more than 4 feet wide and approaching 8 feet in height.

Seemingly suspended from air, the portrait was perched well above the passersby in the open hall of the station in Kosovo's capital. The message behind the portrait was clear: An intentional sign of power, it conveyed Milosevic's hopes of a greater Serbia.

That was in the autumn of 1992, and much since then has happened in Kosovo and the rest of the former Yugoslavia. The province today remains a part of Serbia and Montenegro, but is administered by the United Nations following clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the late 1990s that cost at least 10,000 lives.

For a regional capital, Pristina in 1992 was a lifeless town in a corner of Europe bypassed by post-Soviet transformations rapidly under way elsewhere on the continent.

Grocery store shelves were lean. Utilities to residences and businesses operated sporadically. The third of the four Balkan wars under Milosevic's rule --- in Bosnia -- was intensifying. International sanctions against Yugoslavia had been imposed in May of 1992, and Kosovo was being pinched.

There were harsher signs in Pristina of looming tragedy. Kosovo's main university was eerily quiet. Pedestrians on the street and motorists in cars were routinely stopped and manhandled by the Serb police force for onlookers such as myself to see.

The ethnic Albanian community was forming its own network of clinics and schools, in response to the loss of the autonomy they had been accorded under communist rule.

Interviews with dozens of ethnic Albanian people in Pristina at that time drew repeated tales of oppression by the ruling minority Serbs. Interviews with as many Serbs provided as strong a feeling of resentment against the ethnic Albanians.

Although not a violent place, Pristina already very much felt unsafe, a city taking a breath before a coming battle.

Rise and fall

Kosovo is where Milosevic shot to national prominence and where, many Balkan analysts would argue, his downfall began.

The majority of the population is Muslim ethnic Albanian. For them, they are more culturally aligned to Albania than the rest of Yugoslavia.

For the ethnic minority Orthodox Christian Serbs, Kosovo is considered the birthplace of their nation. It was the center of Serb power until the mid-14th century, and was reclaimed from the old Ottoman Empire by Belgrade in 1913.

In 1989 Milosevic delivered a nationalist speech in Kosovo Polje, near Pristina. That year, Milosevic stripped Kosovo of the autonomous status it had enjoyed under communist rule.

By the end of 1992 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were organizing a civil disobedience movement against Milosevic's policies. But that effort failed to restore autonomy and by the mid-1990s an ethnic Albanian guerilla movement called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began attacking Serb targets.

Ethnic Albanian secessionists proclaimed independence and KLA attacks in 1997 caused a Serb counter-offensive. Full-blown war would come to Kosovo at the end of the 1990s when the Yugoslav army began a crackdown against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. NATO-led air strikes against Yugoslavia ended the crackdown in the province in 1999.

Milosevic was first indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for alleged war crimes in 1999, many focused on human rights abuses committed in Kosovo. Among the charges Milosevic was accused of was direct responsibility for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

Milosevic was voted out of power at the end of 2000, the military campaign in Kosovo seemingly the decisive factor for war-weary Serbians.

Today Kosovo is in limbo. The Milosevic portrait is long gone in Pristina's train station, but Kosovo today still feels the weight of Milosevic's policies.

International diplomatic efforts are under way to permanently settle the future of the province. Restoration of autonomy or even independence for Kosovo remain possibilities, although Kosovo's Serbs reject both options.

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