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Education Truce Reached in Troubled Kosovo

Balkans: Ethnic Albanians are to return to schools--but stay segregated. Thousands of Serbs protest.

March 24, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Setting off a wave of protests, Serbian and ethnic Albanian delegates in tense Kosovo province agreed Monday to return Albanian students to the schools they have been unable or unwilling to attend for years.

The agreement was seen as an important first step in restoring Albanian rights and a rare positive gesture amid a deadly police crackdown on Albanian separatists. But numerous education issues were left unresolved, and resistance from Serbs was instantaneous.

Shortly after the nine-point accord was signed, thousands of Serbs waving Serbian flags marched through the streets of Pristina, the provincial capital, chanting "Treason!" and "No way!" to the sharing of their classrooms.

"This is a Serbian university and it will remain Serbian," Radivoje Papovic, the Serbian dean of the University of Pristina, said from the steps of the school to an angry crowd. "The Albanians have to understand that they live with us, but we do not have to live with them."

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, which along with Montenegro makes up what remains of Yugoslavia.

Ethnic Albanian professors and students were expelled from or began boycotting university and elementary and secondary schools here in 1991, after instruction in the Albanian language was banned and a uniform Serbian curriculum imposed. Two years earlier, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had stripped Kosovo of its autonomy.

Instead, Albanian students attend an underground network of schools, part of a wider parallel system of government, health care and taxation that the Kosovo Albanians established to resist and ignore Serbian rule. About 90% of Kosovo's 2.1-million population is ethnic Albanian, people who speak their own language and for the most part look to Tirana, the capital of Albania.

The agreement brokered by St. Egidio--an Italian Roman Catholic organization--will let Albanians return to university buildings gradually starting April 30, with reentry ending June 30. Serbian students will attend classes half the day, Albanians the other half. Some elementary and high school pupils will be able to return to mainstream schools by the end of March.

But the mediators failed to resolve the most difficult, fundamental education issues involving curriculum, language, financing and school administration.

"The agreement is basically a continuation of the parallel system, but within the old buildings," a Western official said. "It is going to take an agreement on Kosovo's status before the entire education matter is resolved."

There were indications that Milosevic, who is now president of Yugoslavia, pushed the agreement through as a way to escape new sanctions that Western governments are threatening to impose at a meeting of the six-nation Contact Group on Wednesday. Mediators shuttled between Pristina and Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, on Sunday in a government aircraft to iron out the final, contentious details, sources close to the negotiations said.

Serbian teachers and students blasted the agreement as another move toward surrendering Kosovo to the Albanians. "This jeopardizes the sovereignty of Serbia," declared student leader Zivojin Rakocevic, announcing a campaign of protests against any Albanian attendance at established schools. He avoided answering whether the students would block Albanian students attempting to enter classes.

The agreement signed Monday was a follow-up to an initial "education normalization" accord signed in 1996 by Milosevic and Ibrahim Rugova, principal leader of the Kosovo Albanians. Hailed at the time as a breakthrough, the agreement was vaguely worded and never implemented.

The new accord adds some detail but was almost scuttled at the last minute when Serbs and Albanians disagreed over the word "re-integrate" versus "reenter."

Serbian delegates preferred to refer to the Albanian return as "re-integration," which they interpret as bringing the students into existing Serbian programs. The ethnic Albanian delegates, who prevailed, insisted on "reentry," which they interpret as the physical return to the buildings without relinquishing a separate curriculum.

Albanian delegates and the St. Egidio team gave the agreement reserved praise. "This is the first step in concrete cohabitation . . . a real start toward normalization," said Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, St. Egidio's representative.

But even as he read the agreement at a chaotic news conference in the Serbian-controlled Pristina Library, the obstacles became clear. Serbian youngsters in their early teens, waiting for a poetry class in the same lecture hall where Paglia presided over the news conference, heckled the priest and jostled with a few Albanians who accompanied journalists. "Get out of here, you garbage!" one girl with a backpack called out. A boy about 9 held up a three-finger salute of Serbian nationalism.

Before Paglia finished, a Serbian library attendant burst into the room and ordered the priest and his entourage of mediators to leave. The Serbs needed the space, he yelled, and now. The mediators gathered up their papers and shuffled out of the room. The children cheered.

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