KLINA, YUGOSLAVIA -- In a run-down motel here, off a bumpy road that cuts through the soul of the Serbian nation, something is happening to the dream of Greater Serbia.
From tiny, cement-block rooms in the Motel Nora, once known locally for its mixed grill and now festooned with refugees' soggy laundry, hundreds of Serbs from Albania have begun returning to the poorest country in Europe, only three years after coming here to Serbia's southern province of Kosovo to join their Slavic brothers. With their journeys, they are voting against a plan to rebuild the Serb population of Kosovo, seat of the medieval Serbian empire.
The moves from Klina, a farming town near the ancient city of Pec, highlight a crisis facing authorities in Belgrade who four years ago revoked Kosovo's status as an autonomous Serbian province and instituted martial law to quell growing separatism among the estimated 2 million Albanians who make up more than 90 percent of its population.
While Serbian authorities have been successful in squeezing the Albanians, the second leg of their policy -- the resettlement of Kosovo with Serbs -- is failing. Few if any Serbs from Serbia want to move here and even Serb refugees from dirt-poor Albania or the embattled countries of Bosnia and Croatia are longing to head home.
"If I had known I was going to end up in Kosovo, I never would have left Albania," said Dmitrov Popovic, a doleful 43-year-old high school teacher who has spent three years in Yugoslav refugee camps, including a tent city and a former jail, because he refuses to settle in Kosovo. Last year he was forcibly moved to the Motel Nora, where he lives in Room 8 -- an 8-by-12-foot box -- with his wife and two teenage children.
The reason why the Serbs from the Motel Nora and other refugee settlements here are choosing to return to Albania's countryside, where per capita income is the lowest in Europe, illustrates a broader conundrum facing Serb authorities throughout Yugoslavia and its former republics as they seek to safeguard the gains of their military occupation of parts of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. International sanctions against Yugoslavia -- now reduced to Serbia and Montenegro -- along with demographic and political realities are confounding the dream of a Greater Serbia, a prime factor in Serb land grabs in Croatia and Bosnia and in the wars that followed.
In Kosovo alone, the Serb percentage of the population has dropped from about 12 percent to below 5 percent in recent years, according to Western diplomats. While the Serbs' birthrate in the province is below Western averages, the Albanians' birthrate is 3 percent a year, the highest in Europe. As the Serb percentage of Kosovo's population shrinks, fewer Serbs from other regions want to relocate here.
Simultaneously, other factors are creating a diminishing pool of potential settlers -- both for Kosovo and other chunks of Serb-occupied land. In Serbia, the average age is 48, one of the oldest in Europe. Since the Balkan wars began in mid-1991, an estimated 300,000 mostly young and generally well-educated Serbs have left their homeland.
The importance of Kosovo in this equation revolves around the mythic, geopolitical and economic significance of this historic valley.
To the Serbs, Kosovo, liberally sprinkled with ancient Orthodox monasteries, castles and churches rich with frescoes, is a "Jerusalem," the seat of their first empire and the site of their most important battle -- the June 28, 1389, defeat by the invading army of the Ottoman Empire in Kosovo Polje, the Field of Black Crows. That defeat, woven into Serbian epic poetry -- which omits the fact that Albanians fought on the losing Serbian side -- has become a spiritual wellspring for Serbian nationalism that endures today. Its memory prompted a Bosnian Serb to gun down the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo in 1914, on the 525th anniversary of the defeat, touching off World War I.
It also catapulted Serbia's current president, Slobodan Milosevic, to national prominence with a speech in Kosovo in April 1987 during which he exchanged the cloak of communism for militant Serb nationalism. Any backtracking on Milosevic's promise to maintain an iron grip on Kosovo would expose him to attacks from the powerful Serbian right.
If losing Kosovo would cut the heart out of the Serb soul or threaten the foundations of Milosevic's power, it would also put a crimp in the Yugoslav pocketbook. Kosovo's Trepca mines produced more than half the lead and zinc in all of former Yugoslavia. The area also has rich deposits of brown coal, silver and gold. International economic sanctions on Yugoslavia and the fact that Serb authorities fired most of the 5,000 Albanian miners for their support of an independent Kosovo have kept the mines shut.
The dominant Albanian party in Kosovo, the Democratic League, is unabashedly separatist. In May 1992, it organized unofficial but widely popular elections to the parliament the Serbian government had abolished in 1989. The new parliament declared an independent "Republic of Kosova" (as Albanians spell it), led by Ibrahim Rugova, a writer and student of French philosophy.
Finally, Kosovo's location bordering Albania and Macedonia -- home to a substantial minority of Albanians -- makes it fertile ground for Albanian nationalism and -- if armed conflict spreads into Kosovo -- risks widening the war in the Balkans.
"Kosovo is the center of the world. It is here where we will fight the next crusade," declared Bogdan Kecman, a former boxer and a businessman once investigated for tax fraud, who heads the Serb "resettlement and return" program here.
Despite promises of tax breaks, free land and other incentives, few if any Serbs have come to Kosovo willingly. Kecman thinks that if more Albanians are expelled, more Serbs would come. "We should expel at least 120,000 of those who came here after World War II and their families. That would get the ball rolling," he says.
Back at the Motel Nora, Popovic said he was tired of playing the pawn in the designs of others more powerful. He points to a family tree that stretches back to 1389, when his ancestors fled the Turks' victory at Kosovo Polje and moved south into what later became Albania. In 1990, when Albania opened its borders, many Serbs left for Yugoslavia.
"Thinking back," he said, "I really don't know why I left. I had a job, an apartment, friends. Nobody forced us to leave and nobody invited us here. I just followed my tribe."
In Montenegro, local authorities put them in tents and then in an old jail. Then last year, the Yugoslav federal government decided to use them as part of Kecman's program to resettle Kosovo, and they were moved here. One group was offered land in a Kosovo town, Decani, whose 56,000 people include only 700 Serbs. Popovic's group was offered land in a village on Kosovo's border with Albania, where there are no Serbs at all.
Both groups rejected the offers and 800 of the original 2,000 refugees have returned to Albania.
"We came here thinking of refrigerators and VCRs," Popovic said. "But the government was only interested in us as Serb dots on a map. I'm thinking of going home. At least I can tend my ancestors' graves there.