Kosovo after Slobo

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The rest of the world may have greeted the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic earlier this month with a collective sigh of relief. But in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, the response was more like a gasp. "Tell us why?" pleaded the newspaper Zeri, questioning the West's embrace of the new Serb leader, Vojislav Kostunica. The difference between the old and new Serb Presidents, the paper scoffed, was the difference "between Coke and Pepsi."

The usual image of Kostunica in local media is not the affable professor in a rumpled suit that appeared in newspapers and magazines around the globe this month; it is a snapshot taken last year of the smiling leader hoisting an AK-47 while visiting Serb troops during the Kosovo war. Across Pristina, residents worry that Belgrade's velvet revolution will bring a return to strife. "I can feel that war is coming again," said a shop clerk. "My brothers are ready to pick up their guns." A 64-year-old vegetable vendor whispered a sentiment that would have been blasphemy four weeks ago: "I should have voted for Milosevic."

That view is surprising given the former strongman's role in Kosovo's suffering. But Milosevic was the perfect foil for Kosovo Albanians' dreams of independence. As long as the Butcher of the Balkans was in power, Albanians could be assured of Western backing in their opposition to Serb rule. Now, those dreams are in danger of being snatched away.

The shift has cast a pall over Kosovo's first democratic elections scheduled for Oct. 28. Organized by the U.N., the municipal polls were embraced by Albanians as a chance to prove to the world they were ready for self-rule. But now, instead of a happy civics lesson, the election campaign has become a rallying point for independence and resurgent Albanian nationalism. Support for hard-liners like Hashim Thaci, the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader still known as the Snake, has risen sharply, U.N. officials say, at the expense of the pacifist Ibrahim Rugova, a favorite of the West for his more understated, though sometimes impenetrable, views. Rugova himself has undergone a sudden conversion. The trademark silk scarf which he wore for 10 years as a symbol of Serb repression and which he took off last year after the nato bombing, is back around his neck. His dour face stares from posters with the slogan "Freedom, Independence, Democracy!" Settling for anything less, Rugova says, "may spell the start of a new war." Nor has the Belgrade thaw lessened tensions in southern Serbia, where two Serb policemen were killed by a landmine believed to have been placed by Albanian insurgents.

Legally, Kosovo's status within Yugoslavia remains a muddle. It has no ties to Belgrade, but is still officially a province of Yugoslavia. It is run by the U.N. and defended by NATO-led troops, but local politicians are supposed to have a say in decisions of state. The closest thing to a constitution is U.N. resolution 1244, which calls for "substantial autonomy" but not independence and which even promises the return of Serb security forces. That provision is one reason why Kostunica, unlike Milosevic, has said that he supports the document support which has "resuscitated" the resolution, according to head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner. "This is absolutely crucial," he told Time. "This is the only body of understanding for all communities involved."

In fact, Western officials are only beginning to come to terms with the wider consequences of Milosevic's exit. "The impact," conceded one diplomat "is astounding. It has us dizzy." U.S. diplomats, early last week, quietly proposed that Kosovo and Montenegro join Serbia as equal republics in a more loosely configured federation. But the proposal triggered denunciations in Montenegro, where locals do not like the idea of equal status with Kosovo, and even more heatedly in Kosovo itself. "No way!" Hashim Thaci huffed. "No go," added another key Albanian leader and ex-K.L.A. commander, Ramush Haradinaj. "We don't want to create another Yugoslavia. We should not be put in a situation to fight." After a flurry of cables from local missions, the idea was shelved.

But not before it had confirmed Albanians' worst fears: without Milosevic around, the West will be looking for a way out. Diplomats admit that interest in the region is likely to wane. They are also mindful of the risks of disengagement. "It's a tricky balancing act," said a senior Western official in Pristina. "The Albanians must not think that we are compromising their desire for independence. Should that happen, hard-line elements will rise and radicalize." Already some anger is surfacing. Ramush Haradinaj said flatly last week: "The U.N. administration is killing our future because it is not working." In a Time interview Thaci attempted to be conciliatory: "Sure we are encouraged by the fall of the fascist regime in Belgrade," he said. "But we, the K.L.A., contributed to this. The West owes us." Nor are most Albanians forgetting the crimes committed in Serbia's name. Nekibe Kelmendi, secretary-general of the Democratic League of Kosovo, whose husband Bajram and two sons, Kastriot, 30, and Kushtrim, 16, were executed by Serb police the night the nato bombing began, explained: "For 13 years the Serbian opposition paid lip service to Milosevic's crimes and policies and now they are in power. It is too early for apologies." The failure of Kostunica to release several hundred Albanian prisoners has further embittered Albanians.

Serbia's real intentions for Kosovo remain unclear. Most Serbs object to independence for the province but mainly because, as President Kostunica told TIME last week, it would encourage other Albanians in Montenegro and southern Serbia to secede. Zoran Djindjic, the former opposition leader who has emerged as a major power in Belgrade, wrote recently that "Kosovo Albanians have no right to an independent state." Attempts to achieve it, he argued, would be following "a path traveled by political extremists. I don't know what is at the end, but it is not a modern Europe."

Kosovo's biggest problem may be that it remains rudderless. The U.N. has not managed to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the Serb regime last year, and the only local leaders to emerge are still defined by their opposition to Milosevic. The upcoming elections and others that should follow in six months may begin to change that. But for now, says Louis Sell, head of the International Crisis Group in Pristina, "The Albanians have been forced to confront their own powerlessness. They have no legitimate ethnic Albanian leader to speak on their behalf." Serbia, in other words, may have rid itself of Milosevic, but in Kosovo his poisonous legacy lives on.

Reported by Duska Anastasijevic/Belgrade and Anthee Carassava/Pristina