- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2000

Just when everybody was trying to pretend that Kosovo was more or less quiescent, some unsettling noises began coming out of Belgrade this past week.

"With God's help, this people and this army of ours will return to their ancient cradle, the sacred Serbian land of Kosovo," Yugoslav Gen. Vladimir Lazerevic was quoted as saying in the major Belgrade journal, Politika. Then he added it was also now possible that Russia, Serbia's historical Orthodox and anti-American friend, and even China, would veto a decision in the Security Council on extending the NATO and U.N. oversight mandates in Kosovo. They expire as early as next June.

And who exactly is this Gen. Lazerevic? Well, not exactly some Serbian slouch. He was commander of the Prishtina Corps itself, the Serb army, based in Kosovo, that carried out the massacres and deportations of tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians. Where is he now? He was just promoted to the far more important position of deputy head of the 3rd Army and he was speaking from that newly empowered position.

What does this mean? (1) That Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has not given up anything, much less ideas of returning to Kosovo, (2) and that the United Nations and NATO are proceeding far too slowly and ponderously in taking over Kosovo definitively so there is no chance of Serbian revanchism. It could also mean the entire international effort could fail there, and not too far into the future.

The place to watch in Kosovo these days and the place that few are reporting on is that area of Kosovo that goes from the immensely troubled city of Mitrovica north to the Serbian border. This is where the great mineral wealth of Trepca, a sprawling conglomerate of 41 mines and factories, is located. Rich in minerals like lead, zinc, silver, gold, cadmium and bismuth, the mines are famous from Roman times. Today the installations are abysmally rundown, but no matter. They remain the symbol and the central element of the Kosovar-Serbian quarrel.

To the Kosovar Albanians (more than 90 percent of Kosovo's population), Trepca is their "Berlin Wall," standing for the terrible oppression of Serbia from 1989 to 1999. To the Serb leaders, Trepca represents power over Kosovo but, even more, the way to exercise their sheer greed. During these long war and occupation years, Trepca provided Mr. Milosevic with a large personal income. According even to Serbian official sources, in l996 Trepca exported $l00 million of products, making it the largest exporting company in Yugoslavia. Others place the income much higher.

Profits for Belgrade insiders alone were reaped in hard currency and oil, with much of the exports going, interestingly enough, to Mr. Milosevic's good friends in Moscow. Trepca was also used for his extensive money-laundering, the minerals industry being especially well constituted for such deeds.

One might have thought that, once NATO and the U.N. took over Kosovo last spring after so much suffering, that Trepca would have been taken for Kosovo's use and advantage. The mines are ostensibly "owned" by Serbian public companies, so that would not have been too difficult.

But while the United Nations has studied various plans for the mines, it is allowing this definitive moment to be wasted. Meanwhile, as I discovered when I visited Kosovo this fall, Belgrade is constantly infiltrating Serb militias and troublemakers into the Mitrovica area, where Serb vigilantes signal one another on walkie-talkies as they intimidate Kosovars, just like in the "good old days" before last spring.

The French "peacekeepers" who control this area for NATO take the side of the Serbs. And the international organizations, with their ridiculous emphasis on a spurious "reconciliation" of the Kosovars with the Serbs who tried to wipe them off the map, even at one point escorted Serb workers into the Mitrovica battery factory, all in the name of "multicultural unity." Once inside, the Serbs proceeded to plunder it.

This information comes from my recent trip, but also from two recent reports by the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that has had an exemplary record of correct judgments on the Balkans.

In the first, "Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth," the writers trace how "among locals and many international staff now working in Kosovo the subject of Trepca is regarded as dangerous and shrouded in secrecy." In the second, "Starting from Scratch in Kosovo: The Honeymoon Is Over," the report explains this destructive hesitance, saying that the problem is, as I believe it to be, that the refusal of the U.N. and NATO to exercise authority in part because they are more afraid of Kosovar independence demands than Serb revanchism. Also there is an appalling lack of vigor on the part of so many of these "international public servants," with their unwillingness to actually do anything that might appear effective.

And so, the report explains, they have "opted instead for a myriad of holding mechanisms, which include doing nothing, actively preserving the status quo, appointing deliberative commissions and looking outside Kosovo for solutions to problems that could be solved locally."

Kosovo, then, is beginning to have the look of the abundant failures of the U.N. and the international organizations in so many other places. And by fearing to take any real action and thus ignoring the growing threat the attempts of Belgrade to create an international disaster in Kosovo they are assuring still another one.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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