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Yugoslav Leaders Campaign in Kosovo

April 17, 1998

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ The government’s campaign message to voters is stark: Serbs who once said ``No″ to the Nazis and the Soviets must now reject the West as well.

The state-run propaganda machine is at full throttle ahead of Thursday’s referendum to decide whether Serbia should let the United States and other Western powers mediate in the crisis in the restive province of Kosovo.

Government officials and the influential media they control present the referendum as the ultimate vote against an alleged Western desire to dominate Serbia.

Critics say the referendum will lead to further international isolation. They see it as an attempt by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to shift blame for his policies to outside powers, and to ordinary Serbs.

Milosevic rose to power a decade ago by espousing the cause of Kosovo’s Serbs, who he said were so harassed and threatened by majority Albanians in the province that he had no choice but to strip it of autonomy in 1989.

Kosovo’s independence-minded Albanians increasingly chafe under police rule, and some are turning from peaceful to armed struggle.

Last month, a Serbian police crackdown on alleged Albanian militants left more than 80 people dead. A world worried about a new Balkan war pressured Milosevic to negotiate, threatening sanctions if he did not.

Milosevic may still make a deal. But he has made clear he’s going to dictate the terms as far as possible, proposing the referendum as a means to rally popular support for his stance that no foreign mediation is needed.

With the outside world insisting on mediation, he’s effectively asked his people _ already suffering from a decade of decline caused by war, sanctions, corruption and mismanagement _ to vote for more hardship and sanctions.

``After a successful referendum, the government can calmly say: You asked for it,″ wrote Roksanda Nincic in the independent Vreme weekly.

Officials have branded the referendum ``The Third Historic No,″ harking back to the Serb uprising against Nazi occupation in 1941, or former Yugoslavia’s ``No″ to Josef Stalin in 1948.

``Participation in the referendum is act of patriotism!″ headlines the main state-run daily Politika.

There is little doubt Milosevic will win his referendum. Serbs have strong feelings about Kosovo, the cradle of their Serbian Orthodox church and culture.

There is no independent way to judge turnout. In last year’s presidential vote, the authorities claimed high participation _ ironically _ in Kosovo, where the majority Albanians have boycotted every election since 1990.