Murder, Kosovo violence point to more turmoil

LONDON, Feb 9, 2000 -- (Reuters) The murder of Yugoslavia's defense minister and a new wave of ethnic bloodshed in Kosovo highlight unresolved problems left over from NATO's air war last year.

These troublespots continue to destabilize the Balkans despite signs of progress elsewhere in the region, experts say.

The shooting of Defence Minister Pavle Bulatovic in a Belgrade restaurant, less than a month after the assassination of wanted Serbian warlord Zeljko "Arkan" Raztanovic, suggests the fate of what remains of Yugoslavia is more likely to be settled by violence than by democratic change.

"It is now virtually guaranteed that any political change in Yugoslavia will be brutal and bloody. There are too many scores to settle," said Jonathan Eyal, Balkans expert at Britain's Royal United Services Institute for defense studies.

"While there are very encouraging signs in Croatia, with a potentially positive impact on Bosnia, the disaster is getting bigger in places that are stuck in an impasse - Kosovo and Serbia - and that has worrying implications for the West, which is stuck in the Balkans for an indefinite period," Eyal said.

Bulatovic, from Serbia's smaller sister republic of Montenegro, was a loyal, low-profile aide to President Slobodan Milosevic. The Belgrade government called the killing a "classic terrorist act" and a senior Serbian official pointed an accusing finger at the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), not previously thought to have carried out attacks beyond the borders of the rebel province.

The latest in a string of unsolved slayings in Belgrade may have been an attempt by a paramilitary or organized crime gang to strike at Milosevic, possibly in revenge for the death of Arkan, which opposition leaders blamed on the Serbian strongman's security services.

It might even have been an attempt to eliminate a potential witness in any international war crimes trial of Milosevic, since the self-effacing defense minister, in office since 1993, knew much about the Yugoslav forces' crackdown in Kosovo and help for the Bosnian Serbs, a NATO diplomat said.

Tension between Serbia and Montenegro

"This kind of violence can go one of two ways: either it's a chance for change, with the crabs killing each other inside a pot, or it creates more instability and an excuse for a harsher crackdown. Either way, it's another element of concern and a sign that things in the Balkans remain chaotic and uncontrollable," the diplomat said.

The killing could exacerbate tensions between Belgrade and Montenegro, estranged politically and financially from Serbia, by giving Milosevic supporters there a pretext to rebel against Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic.

The pro-Western president is under pressure from his own backers to hold a referendum on independence from Yugoslavia.

His local foes are led by Momic Bulatovic, no relation to the murdered minister, but whom Milosevic appointed federal premier to provide a counterweight to the self-rule campaigners.

Western officials see the standoff between Serbian and Montenegro as a potential flashpoint for another Balkan war and have been trying to deter both sides from provoking each other.

They have reminded Milosevic of the NATO bombing he endured for his crackdown in Kosovo while warning Djukanovic he cannot count on NATO to ride to his rescue if he breaks away.

Eyal said Western policy was to try to sustain a stalemate between Belgrade and Podgorica in the hope that political change in Serbia would eventually bring about a peaceful solution.

"On balance, the Kosovo situation is the most dangerous, because the stalemate there is not durable and the KLA clearly has an interest in mischief-making to try to drive the remaining Serbs out and force the West to accept Kosovo's independence," he said.

A NATO diplomat said field reports from Kosovo suggested KLA leaders may have orchestrated the latest wave of attacks on Serbs, which began with the rocketing of a U.N. bus carrying Serbs near Kosovska Mitrovica last Wednesday and escalated into widespread shooting and grenade attacks in the divided city.

"The KLA is certainly trying to precipitate events politically and get rid of some people, both Serbs and moderate ethnic Albanians," the diplomat said.

KLA may turn against U.N., NATO

In many areas, the KLA had filled a vacuum left by the absence of local government or international institutions, intimidating the ethnic Albanian population and frustrating U.N. High Representative Bernard Kouchner's efforts to put in place a tolerant, pluralistic administration.

The slowness of the European Union in providing promised funds and policemen for the U.N. administration had aggravated the power vacuum and played into the hands of KLA hardliners, the diplomat said.

Kouchner and NATO face the dilemma of trying to build up local self-government without holding province-wide elections that would inevitably be won by supporters of independence, which the West opposes.

As long as Milosevic remains in power in Belgrade, there is no prospect of negotiations on the final status of Kosovo, as called for under U.N. Security Council resolution 1244 which brought an end to NATO's 11-week air war last June.

That means NATO is stuck in Kosovo indefinitely, to the dismay of U.S. congressmen who oppose any open-ended commitment of the American military where Washington's vital interests are not deemed to be at stake.

Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned a conference of defense experts in Munich last weekend that the long-term military occupation of the tense regions of former Yugoslavia was courting disaster.

Western officials fear the KLA, which hailed NATO forces last year as liberators, may begin to turn the Kosovo population against the U.N. administration and NATO if they are seen as permanently preventing any prospect of independence.

Against that bleak background, the victory of the democratic opposition in Croatia after the death of nationalist autocrat Franjo Tudjman and the reform efforts of governments in Romania and Bulgaria determined to meet the criteria for European Union membership offer rays of hope in the wider Balkan region.

But while Milosevic is still there, Western officials say it is too early to predict the region's emergence from turmoil.

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