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Milosevic Moves Toward Accepting the Rights of Albanians in Kosovo

September 2, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Serbia’s president took a step toward acknowledging the rights of ethnic Albanians on Monday, moving away from the virulent rhetoric that helped foster conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic struck a bargain with leaders in Kosovo, a province that was the heart of Serbia’s medieval civilization but is now 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

The deal was simply to end a six-year school boycott by ethnic Albanians, but is significant because it will likely help reduce tensions between the Serbian and Albanian populations in the province.

Milosevic also recognized the ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, for the first time as a negotiating partner, raising the prospect the two might find a way to resolve one of the Balkans’ most intractable ethnic disputes.

Western countries have warned Milosevic for years not to provoke violence in Kosovo, where 150 people have died in sporadic fighting since the late 1980s.

Kosovo, a province of 1.9 million people on the border between Albania and Macedonia, has great historical significance to the Serbs _ and Albanians _ both of whom consider it theirs.

In 1389, in the Battle of Kosovo Polje _ Kosovo Field _ Ottoman Turks defeated Serbia and its allies, and Serbia and Bulgaria were forced under Turkish rule for nearly 500 years.

The province enjoyed autonomy under the regime of former dictator Josip Broz Tito, but in 1989 Milosevic revoked the restive population’s autonomous status, transforming himself from Communist bureaucrat to nationalist leader.

In April 1987, Milosevic, surrounded by a crowd of Serbs in Kosovo, proclaimed: ``None should ever dare beat you.″ It was the start of his nationalist campaign.

First in Croatia and then later in Bosnia, Serbs acted on the nationalist message, helping to fuel wars that splintered the old Yugoslav federation.

Ever since Milosevic pledged to protect Serbs from being overrun by the Albanians, Kosovo has been ruled with a heavy Serbian police presence.

Albanians responded by dropping out of Kosovo’s official institutions and forming a parallel society with their own leaders, medical care and educational system.

They have boycotted the official schools, in part to protest Serbia’s refusal to allow students to study a separate curriculum in their own language.

The deal struck Monday ends the boycott of Kosovo’s schools, although it was not clear when or how classes would resume. Rugova’s office said the agreement meant recognition of a separate Albanian educational system.

The deal affects about 300,000 school children and 12,000 university students who have been attending classes in private homes across Kosovo.

Milka Radulovic, a Serb high school principal in Kosovo, praised the agreement. ``We and the Albanians live here together, and we should continue to do so,″ she said.

The stickier issue of Kosovo’s political status still looms, though Rugova’s office said the agreement was signed ``without any conditions, and is independent of any future political negotiations.″

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