- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

Suddenly, the Serbs are the good guys and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are the villains.

In a sharp reversal from just a few months ago, Yugoslavia's new democratic rulers are winning new respect in Western Europe and the United States, this amid growing concern about incursions by Kosovo-based ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces into southern Serbia.

Analysts and diplomats say new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has skillfully used the two months since taking power in Belgrade to repair his country's tattered image.

His government's restraint in the recent fighting in southern Serbia calling on the West to deal with the dispute while observing a NATO-imposed buffer zone along the border yesterday won praise from Jim O'Brien, special adviser to the secretary of state for democracy in the Balkans and point man for U.S. policy in the region.

"It is striking that in just two months, the new democratic authorities in Yugoslavia have done a magnificent job in setting the tone for rejoining the international scene," he said at a forum on U.S.-Yugoslav relations at the Voice of America.

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon, whose government was among the most hawkish in support of NATO's 78-day air war in support of Kosovo's Albanians, last week expressed his own sympathy for Yugoslavia's security woes in the Presevo Valley. It is the site of continued sporadic clashes between Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces.

Kosovo's Albanians garnered huge sympathy in the West after being targeted by former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in a campaign of ethnic violence in 1998 and early 1999.

But they find themselves on the defensive as international peacekeepers deal with continuing ethnic tensions inside Kosovo. The drive for independence, supported by every major ethnic Albanian party in Kosovo, has found little sympathy, especially in Europe.

"The Presevo Valley is the most important worry of the European Union," said Frank Placon, who headed an EU monitoring mission to Kosovo last month.

Many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo openly rooted for Mr. Milosevic against Mr. Kostunica in the Sept. 24 presidential election, feeling that his pariah status abroad only helped their cause.

Mr. Kostunica has pressed his advantage, offering twice in the past 10 days to meet with moderate Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova over the future of Kosovo, which the international community still recognizes as a part of the Yugoslav federation.

Mr. Rugova rejected the offer again over the weekend, in large part because of pressure from militant Albanian factions linked to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the guerrilla force that worked closely with NATO forces last year to oust Mr. Milosevic's troops.

"We have to wait a little," Mr. Rugova said at a conference in Greece on Saturday. "It's necessary that [the Serbs] themselves change, that they have new ideas."

But Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, who participated in the forum from Belgrade, said yesterday his government was prepared to "discuss openly" the final status of Kosovo with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, international organizations and the region's key powers.

If Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Macedonia would help guarantee the outcome of such a conference, he said, "I could live with the final outcome."

Belgrade's diplomatic advantage could grow after Serbia holds parliamentary elections Dec. 23. Mr. Kostunica's supporters hope to consolidate their power in Yugoslavia, sharply limiting the influence of Milosevic supporters still in power.

In contrast, Mr. Rugova and rival Hashim Thaci, the former KLA leader who now heads the province's more militant political party, still are jockeying for power as the United Nations moves toward elections for a Kosovo self-governing body, a vote that has not yet been scheduled.

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