Will unhappy Serbs turn on Milosevic?

Refugees flee Kosovo as opponents, Serbian Orthodox Church call for his ouster


Laura Rozen
June 15, 1999 3:00PM (UTC)

For some, the peace is as cruel as the war.

As 3,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees rushed the Macedonian-Yugoslav border Tuesday in a line of cars that stretched almost two miles long, risking mines, booby traps and the loss of their refugee status in order to return to Kosovo, thousands more Serbian soldiers continued their withdrawal from the province, trailed by Kosovo Serbian civilians who had tied bundles of their belongings atop battered old Tito-era cars.

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The sight of the sad, slow-moving convoys of Serbs heading north out of the province spoke volumes about how the decade-old Kosovo policy of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic -- which promoted Serbian interests over the rights of non-Serbs -- has backfired, and led to Serbs losing Kosovo, in everything but name.

The latest scenes of Serbs fleeing Kosovo resemble earlier ones: of thousands of Serbs running through a gantlet of vengeful Croatians after the Krajina region fell to Croatian forces in 1995; and the tens of thousands of Serbs boarding buses to flee the Sarajevo suburbs for Serbian-held parts of Bosnia, after the Dayton peace deal was struck, and Sarajevo was given to the Muslim-led Bosnian government.

Milosevic's 10-year project to carve a Greater Serbia from the smoldering remains of Yugoslavia has led instead to a rump Serbia, that grows smaller by the conflict.

Ironically, Milosevic, who has ordered his troops and police to expel close to a million Kosovo Albanians from their homes over the past three months, now has a refugee crisis of his own to contend with. Even before the latest exodus of Serbs, this time from Kosovo, Milosevic's Yugoslavia had more than 500,000 refugees, mostly Serbs who had fled his failed policies in Croatia and Bosnia.

The pro-Western, anti-Milosevic president of the smaller Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, puts it this way:

"When Milosevic starts defending Serbian national interests and when he is helped by [hard-line Serbian nationalist politician] Vojislav Seselj, all that is left behind them is Serbian graves," Djukanovic said last Friday, in a report carried on the Serbian Democratic Party's Web site. "Kosovo has ensured the necessary sobering process for all politicians who must once and for all abandon the policy of a Greater Serbia."

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Ten thousand Kosovo Serbian refugees fled the province for the smaller Yugoslav republic of Montenegro by Sunday night, local reports said. Thousands more are moving from Kosovo north into Serbia proper. In a rare public appearance in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad Monday, Milosevic ignored the pain of Kosovo Serbs, to paint his Kosovo policy as a grand success.

"Behind us are the most difficult 11 weeks since the Second World War," Milosevic proclaimed at a rally Monday near a bridge over the Danube which had been bombed by NATO, "in which the most brutal aggression was committed against our country by the biggest military machinery ever created in the world during which our people, through their heroic struggle, their unity, managed to defend the country, get guarantees of its territorial wholesomeness, its integrity and state sovereignty from the U.N. and to continue to resolve problems which remain open in the southern Serbian province under U.N. auspices."

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The crowd, mostly supporters of Milosevic's neo-communist political party, the Socialist Party of Serbia, was reported to have responded with cheers of "victory, victory" and "Slobo, Sloboda" -- Milosevic's first name, and the Serbian word for freedom.

But in a move Belgrade analysts consider significant, the Serbian Orthodox Church called on Milosevic to resign Tuesday. It was one of increasing signs that support for Milosevic is eroding in several quarters, from the church to the hard-line nationalists aligned with Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party, which resigned from the Serbian government Tuesday, to Yugoslav army officers embittered by their defeat in Kosovo, and Kosovo Serbs forced to flee their homes.

Many Kosovo Serbs always suspected that they would end up paying for the excesses of Milosevic's anti-Albanian policies in Kosovo. Milosevic refused to appoint a single Kosovo Serbian representative to the Serbian delegation that went to the Rambouillet peace talks on Kosovo in France earlier this year.

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The grief and anger of Kosovo Serbs who feel too insecure to remain in the province after the withdrawal of Serbian forces is now divided among NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and Serbian politicians far away in Belgrade.

One Kosovo Serbian woman said she blamed hard-line nationalist Seselj who had sent paramilitary forces to Kosovo to terrorize the Kosovo Albanians, and who withdrew from the Serbian government in protest against Milosevic agreeing to NATO's demands.

In a letter carried by VIP news, Zagorka Pavlovic, the leader of a Serbian women's organization who had been living in the Kosovo capital Pristina, called on Seselj and other Belgrade politicians to put themselves in the shoes of the fleeing Kosovo Serbs.

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"I am calling on you and your families to all spend a year in that spacious house as our guests, free of charge and to enjoy the benefits of what you call the free and defended Kosovo. Neither my family nor myself will bother you in the house because we are leaving as refugees," Pavlovic said.

Not all signs of Serbs withdrawing from Kosovo conjured up sympathy. NATO forces report they saw departing Serbian troops carrying gas cans and torching buildings belonging to Kosovo Albanians in the northeastern Kosovo village of Donje Ljubce Tuesday.

The clock on that kind of plundering -- typical of the past three months -- is ticking. According to the peace agreement reached between NATO and Milosevic, by Sunday, all 40,000 Serbian troops, police, and paramilitaries are to be out of Kosovo.


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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