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FOR a people who have always been particularly sensitive the Serbs of Yugoslavia have recently had more than their fill of insults. They are now reacting with a fury that threatens the delicate balancing act that has kept Yugoslavia's mixed grill of nations on the same plate for so long.
Party officials have been purged in the province of Kosovo, where the trouble between Serbs and ethnic Albanians has been brewing for years. A special paramilitary unit has been sent in to help keep order. Last week the head of the Communist party in Kosovo, himself an Albanian, warned against increased Serbian nationalism, which he said would heighten the dangers of strife.
Although there have been regular reports of the raping of Serbian women, the torturing of their cattle and other horrors, the incident that really stirred up the Serbs, almost two years ago, was the case of the farmer who was found beaten up and semi-conscious in the middle of a field one morning, with a bottle in his anus.
To the Serbs, this was wicked confirmation that in Kosovo the Albanians were determined to beat, buy or breed them out of their land. The Serbs in this province, once the very seat of the Serbian nation, have become an endangered species. They number 200,000 as against 1.73m Albanians.
Kosovo - an autonomous province within the Serbian republic - hardly seems a place worth fighting for. It is a scruffy area where there are few jobs and where the living standard is well below that of the rest of Yugoslavia. Of the 360 manufacturing companies in the region 123 are technically bankrupt.
In 1981 riots by Albanians, which started incongruously over the quality of the food in the university canteen, left at least nine dead and more than 1,000 imprisoned. Since then the Albanians have learned their lesson and the intimidation has become more subtle. But 30,000 Serbs have left the province and only a new law which forbids them from selling their property prevents more departing.
On the whole the Albanians prefer to use their birth rate - the highest in Europe - rather than the rifle to achieve their ends. But on occasion they do use guns. In September a barrack room argument ended with a 20-year-old Albanian soldier killing four sleeping Serbian soldiers and wounding six others, before turning his gun on himself. The incident was enough to start rumours of an army coup.
Admiral Branko Mamula, the defence minister, warned that Yugoslavia was moving to a point where the problems were rapidly getting beyond 'the leadership's ability to control them'. There was more trouble to come. It was revealed that Fadil Hodza, an ageing Albanian politician in Kosovo, once vice-president of Yugoslavia and an old colleague of Tito, had insulted Serbian women.
What Hodza had to say was fairly spectacular. He suggested that the rape problem in the province could be solved if there were more prostitutes - particularly Serbian ones. 'Albanian women won't do it. Serbian and other women would like to. So why not let them?' he said.
Serbian women were soon out in the streets in unprecedented demonstrations. Hodza himself, who in the quaint language of the party 'did not express self criticism', has been punished in a way calculated to devastate any happily-retired communist leader: he has lost the sentry box outside his home, his bodyguard and, perhaps worst of all, his limousine.
But Hodza is still being greeted as a local hero by many Albanians, and at a recent football match his name was chanted by Kosovo supporters, infuriating the rival Serbian fans.
The attitude of some Serbs to developments in Kosovo could possibly induce a Balkan version of Ulster in a region well accustomed to such ingredients. The Serbs are afraid that the Albanians in their midst will first become a separate Yugoslav republic and eventually link up with Albania itself, which is now just emerging from Stalinism.
For the nationalists among the Serbs the argument is that 'a strong Serbia means a strong Yugoslavia'. The champion of Serbian nationalism is undoubtedly Slobodan Milosevic, the president of the Serbian Communist party, who also has overall responsibility for Kosovo's communists. He has said he does not mind if people call him a Stalinist and is certainly living up to that image.
Milosevic's nationalism is finding a fertile ground in a Yugoslavia which, once the miracle of eastern Europe, has reached the point where it is begging Western banks for relief from its debts. His purge of officials in Kosovo, where 13 have been dismissed so far, appears to be only a beginning.
The Albanians have so far remained relatively quiet. But in a speech to foreign journalists on Friday, Azem Vllasi, the Albanian head of the Kosovo Communist party, warned of the dangers of the Serbian cause being used and misused. 'It means that Albanians will close themselves off and therefore there will be more excesses and assaults against the Serbians.'
It is a circle of hatred growing worse in a dangerous part of Europe.
Copyright 1987 Times Newspapers Limited * Posted here for fair use only