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Friday, 17 March, 2000, 17:26 GMT
Unfinished business in the Balkans

By South-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

Renewed violence in the divided town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo has highlighted the continuing inter-ethnic tensions between the local Serbs and the Kosovo Albanian majority.

These tensions can be felt in potential trouble spots across the region, prompting fears of renewed instability in the Balkans, a year after the Kosovo conflict.

Danish K-For tanks on alert in Mitrovica
Mitrovica - the Serbs' last sizeable outpost in Kosovo - is a serious headache for the Nato-led K-For peacekeepers. But it is more than just a local law-and-order problem.

Nato has accused the Yugoslav authorities under President Slobodan Milosevic of stirring up trouble in Mitrovica in an attempt to destabilise the situation in Kosovo, and to create conditions for the possible partitioning of the province so that Serbia could hold on to the north.

K-For's initial failure to protect the Kosovo Serbs has certainly provided Belgrade with publicity ammunition for its demand that Serbian security forces should be allowed back into the province to help restore law and order.

Yugoslav army generals have threatened to use force, in the last resort, if their bid to return to Kosovo is blocked.

Serbia's southern border

Indeed, there's been something of a war psychosis in Serbia in recent weeks with fears of further Nato bombing on the horizon - perhaps, it's assumed in Serbia, on account of the tense situation in the southern part of the country where a new ethnic Albanian guerrilla force is being formed.

Many Albanians live across the border in Serbia

Montenegro was also targetted by Nato strikes
The Serbian districts of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac on the border with Kosovo have a large ethnic Albanian community and tension has triggered clashes between Serbian police and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. This, in turn, has prompted many local Albanians to flee to Kosovo.

Trouble in this area has a huge potential for igniting other hotspots. An attempt by the ethnic Albanian fighters to unite this region with Kosovo would be vigorously resisted by Serbia.

But a violent Serbian crackdown on civilians - a fresh bout of ethnic cleansing - could get K-For embroiled in the conflict.

Besides, fighting in this area - just north of the Macedonian border - could also have a dangerous impact on stability in Macedonia itself.

There's a substantial ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia and radical elements among them have in the past been collaborating with the now officially disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army.

Montenegro's dilemma

Most of the actual and potential trouble spots that the Kosovo conflict has not resolved involve ethnic Albanian communities in the region.

Yet perhaps the greatest danger to stability in the Balkans is the worsening relationship between the Milosevic administration in Belgrade and the Montenegrin leadership under President Djukanovic.

Given what Mr Djukanovic has described as President Milosevic's "suicidal" policies, Podgorica would have already opted for independence - but for the fact that there is a substantial Serb-dominated Yugoslav army presence in Montenegro.

That army could provide the logistical support to committed Serb and pro-Serb Montenegrin forces opposed to independence in a possible future confrontation.

The prospect of civil war in Montenegro has prompted President Djukanovic to adopt a softly-softly approach to independence.

Meanwhile, the possibility of conflict in Montenegro leading to the collapse of the Yugoslav army and provoking chaos in Serbia itself has prevented President Milosevic from authorising a crackdown on the Podgorica government.

To avoid another Balkan meltdown, the international community has been advising Montenegro to refrain from going for independence.

Besides, if Montenegro broke away from Serbia, it would mean the end of the Yugoslav federation.

And without a continuing Yugoslavia, that would immediately reopen the question of Kosovo's future status since UN resolutions on the province refer to it as part of Yugoslavia, not Serbia.

Unfinished business

In any case, the question of Kosovo's future status is likely to return to the top of the agenda once local elections, provisionally scheduled for October, have been held in Kosovo.

That is because the vast majority of the electorate are almost certainly expected to vote for pro-independence candidates.

One way or another, a year after the Kosovo war there's still a lot of unfinished business left in the Balkans.

True, the emergence of pro-Western authorities in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia has given a boost to the process of reconciliation in the western Balkans.

But elsewhere stability remains, for the moment, a somewhat elusive prospect.

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15 Mar 00 | Europe
Violent clashes in Kosovo
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