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Ethnic Rivalries Still Bitter in Balkans

Kosovo, Bosnia Sharply Divided; Macedonians Fear Vote May Spark Violence

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page A18

LJIPJAN, Serbia and Montenegro -- Naser Bytyci and Branko Smilic are dentists who pulled teeth from fighters on opposite sides of Kosovo's ethnic war. Five years into a tenuous peace between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, the dentists live in the same town and practice the same profession. But Bytyci, an ethnic Albanian, pulls only Albanian teeth, and Smilic, a Serb, pulls only the teeth of Serbs.

Bytyci says he would not mind fixing Serb teeth, but that all the Serbs in town refuse to visit him or Albanian doctors of any sort. Smilic professes to be uninterested in giving Albanians root canals.

A Kosovo Albanian mother holds her son's picture during protest in Pristina to call on authorities to resolve fate of thousands of missing Albanians. (Visar Kryeziu -- AP)

"It is better for each side to take care of its own," said Smilic, a stout man with a round face. "Suppose a patient got angry and began blaming the doctor because he was Serb or Albanian?"

It is safer, too, he argues, because recent violence against Serbs demonstrated that the foreign peacekeeping troops here cannot protect the Serbs.

The divided dentistry represents a persistent problem for Kosovo half a decade after NATO-led forces pushed the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army from the province and freed the ethnic Albanians from rule by then-president and current war crimes defendant Slobodan Milosevic.

Not only are the majority Albanians and minority Serbs living in segregated, mutually hostile communities, but they have been unable to integrate even ostensibly neutral public services such as health care. The "parallel structures" mock the stated aims of U.N. overseers in Kosovo to create a multiethnic society in advance of talks designed to resolve the political status of the province, which remains officially part of Serbia.

Kosovo's problems have a cousin in Macedonia to the south. There, a seemingly innocuous plan to reduce the number of municipalities nationwide by consolidating several areas has riled the majority Slavic population, which identifies itself simply as Macedonian.

The Macedonians assert that the plan, part of a U.S.-supported program of ethnic reconciliation, will make worse what they call efforts by the Albanian minority to split the country in two. Albanians say they just want to redress gerrymandering that has kept them at a political disadvantage.

The Macedonians have called a referendum, scheduled for Sunday, to squelch the municipal boundary plan. Several Macedonian analysts speak darkly of renewed violence if the referendum fails. A riot by Macedonians in July -- with trash and cars burned and windows smashed in the town of Struga -- provided a taste of the possible consequences, they say. Conversely, Albanians predict violence if the referendum kills the plan.

All over the Balkans region, the violence that burned in the 1990s has been doused, but the basic conflicts are unresolved. General trends are often negative.

In Bosnia, efforts to bring Serbs, Croats and Muslims into a workable government partnership have stalled. Few refugees who were driven from their homes during Serb campaigns of ethnic cleansing have returned permanently. Nor have Serbs returned after fleeing such places as the Bosnian capital Sarajevo at war's end. Croats remain segregated from Muslims in the western city of Mostar, touted as a symbol of peace when its graceful Ottoman-era bridge was recently restored. The town is almost totally devoid of Serbs.

Further afield, ethnic rivalry within Serbia and Montenegro, the last remaining chunks of Yugoslavia still glued together, threatens the country's unity. In 2006, the two republics are scheduled to vote on whether to remain united. Some Montenegrins are campaigning for secession.

Officials of the European Union, which has pressed to keep Serbia and Montenegro in one piece, say they fear that a Montenegrin exit would create an epidemic of breakups in neighboring countries: Serbs and Croats would want to go their own way in Bosnia, as would Albanians in Kosovo, other parts of Serbia and Macedonia .

A visit to Kosovo produces a sense of movement away from conciliation. The province held parliamentary elections on Oct. 23, but all but a handful of the approximately 120,000 Serbs who live among 1.7 million Albanians boycotted the vote, even though Serbs are guaranteed 10 of the 120 seats in the legislature.

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