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With Milosevic Out, Kosovars Wonder About Independence

Balkans: Ethnic Albanians, happy to see the strongman fall, fear that a further breakup of Yugoslavia is not in the cards.


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo rejoiced Friday that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a hated figure here, has fallen from power--even though many fear that his departure may delay their dream of independence.

"It's more difficult to be independent without Milosevic, because [President-elect Vojislav] Kostunica looks like a democratic leader. He's not, but he looks like it," said local businessman Blerim Gerbeshi, 24. "With Milosevic in power, I think we would become independent faster."

Even so, "if Milosevic is out with all his staff, I think it will be great for everybody," Gerbeshi said. "I feel good."

Many here fear that Western powers, which have never supported Kosovo Albanians' almost universal dream of independence, will now be even more reluctant to see a further breakup of Yugoslavia. Some envision an even worse scenario: that Milosevic's fall will open the way for the return of Yugoslav forces to this southern province of Serbia, the country's dominant republic.

But after the suffering his rule has brought to the people of Kosovo, most want to see Milosevic either dead or facing the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. And they can't help but feel glad to see him in trouble.

"Everybody's happy," said Ilire Berisha, 21, a waitress. "Everything that happened to us, now Milosevic and the people around him are getting a taste of it."

"I would like his finish to be like [that of executed former Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu," said Burim Latifi, 25, a cinema security guard.

The theory that Milosevic's fall will slow the drive for Kosovo independence is widely held, but there also are influential figures who argue the opposite: that Kostunica and whoever might come after him will not have the enormous brute force that Milosevic wielded, and that this will ease the path to independence.

"This is better than with Milosevic, because they will not ever again have the power Milosevic had," said Adem Demaci, a longtime leader of Kosovo's independence movement. "Serb hegemony is heavily wounded. But it's not eliminated. Kostunica himself is one of the very important ideologues of Serb hegemony."

Fadil Hysaj, 47, a theater director and professor at the Academy of Arts in Pristina, said he had "very mixed and confused emotions."

"I have a feeling that a process of ending a big misfortune in the Balkans has now begun," he said. "But at the same time, I have a fear that this evil may only change its face. An evil spirit can be passed into another body, a more sophisticated one."

Hysaj cited photos of Kostunica carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle that were recently published in the Albanian-language press here with captions identifying them as taken in Kosovo. "He never rejected what Milosevic did," Hysaj said. "What is worse, he directly took part, as you can see by the pictures taken here."

Xhavit Haliti, 56, a leader in the Democratic Party of Kosovo--which is headed by Hashim Thaci, the former top leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army--said his party "would like to wish all the best to the Serb nation for the choice they made, if it makes them happy."

But Serbia's isolation should not end, he said, unless Kostunica carries out dramatic changes in policy, added Haliti, who was a political representative for the KLA guerrillas in Albania during last year's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The fighting drove Yugoslav forces out of the province, which is now patrolled by a 42,000-member international force.

"If Kostunica doesn't give up the war criminals for the Hague tribunal, if Kostunica does not release the Albanian hostages in Serb prisons, if Kostunica does not give information about the disappeared people of Kosovo, then the isolation of Serbia is inevitable," he said.

Haliti said he fears that, with Milosevic's ouster, the international community might allow Yugoslav police or soldiers to return to Kosovo. "I think if that happens, people will express their revolt in different ways, and there will be anarchy in Kosovo," he said. This scenario may be unlikely, however, because "the world is not interested in lighting the fuse of another war in Kosovo."

One thing that is certain is that Kosovo will become independent, Haliti said.

"Inevitably it will happen," he said. "There is no other way."


Holley, The Times' Warsaw Bureau chief, is currently on assignment in Pristina.

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