Clashes over Serbian rule

January 9, 1998

Ethnic Albanian students and academics in Kosovo last week resumed demonstrations to "reclaim" education buildings for teaching in their own language.

According to Serbia's interior ministry, the demonstrators dispersed after police "warnings". However, Albanian sources in Pristina, the capital, spoke of police violence, the use of tear gas, "scores" of students beaten up, and Selatin Novosella, a member of the Kosovo provincial parliament, suffering "grave injuries" from police truncheons.

Club-wielding police cordoned off streets to prevent thousands of demonstrators reaching the centre of Pristina.

The protesters claimed their action was a "complete success", focusing world attention on the fact that, since 1991, when education in Kosovo was "Serbianised", they have been excluded from school and university buildings "by force" and have had to study in makeshift premises. They will, they stressed, continue non-violent protests until they regain their classrooms.

The demonstrations drew an unusual reaction from Russia's foreign ministry, which expressed "serious concern" and called on both the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians to exercise "reserve and common sense and to refrain from using force". Russia has traditionally see itself as a protector of the Serbs - who are Slavs and fellow Orthodox Christians.

Russia does not support Kosovar Albanian demands for independence, but foreign ministry spokesman Gennadiy Tarasov said the rights of the Albanians (who make up over 90 per cent of the population) "must be ensured".

Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, sent the students a letter, deploring the police violence, but also challenging their claim to the classrooms. The university was a state institution, he said, and as the Albanian students do not recognise the Serbian state, they could have no right to the campus.

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