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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Stir Kosovo Emotions

MALISEVO, Yugoslavia -- Ethnic Albanians turn their heads and glare at the three Russians, one smoking a cigarette, as they walk quickly through the dusty main street of war-ruined Malisevo. No greetings, no smiles, no handshakes from either side.

In mainly Serbian Kosovo Polje, about 30 kilometers away, Russian soldiers drink and carouse with local Serbs at night and flash the three-fingered Serb salute despised by ethnic Albanians, British troops, aid workers and locals say.

It has been nearly six weeks since Russia's first troops moved into Kosovo from Bosnia, creating a confrontation with NATO later resolved by incorporating the contingent into the peace force. Now, the troops are encountering mistrust and hatred from Kosovo Albanians, gratitude from the dwindling Serb population and raised eyebrows from some fellow peacekeepers unimpressed with their military discipline.

The Russian presence is a delicate situation facing the Western nations that have intervened in the Yugoslav province. The mainly Moslem Kosovo Albanians equate the Serbs and Russians, both Orthodox Christian, as common enemies.

"We despise them," said Jusuf Mazreku, 33, who owns a cafe in Malisevo, a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army for much of its struggle against the Serbs. "The Germans greeted everybody, but the Russians just give us nasty looks."

Russians had been patrolling and manning checkpoints in tandem with German forces until last week, when they went solo. Russians will begin patrolling their second sector, Kamenica in the American zone east of Pristina, on Wednesday, the KFOR peacekeeping mission said Monday.

Their main logistics base in the province is opposite a milk factory in the cradle of Serb nationalism, Kosovo Polje, where a Serbian defeat against the Turks in a 600-year-old battle became a touchstone of Serb identity.

About 700 Russians lodge at a barracks at the nearby airport, which they have partial responsibility for running. About 1,400 Russians are in the province, a KFOR spokesman said. The total is expected to reach 3,600.

Near Malisevo, the Russians occupy a vineyard in Banje, 5 kilometers west of the town, as their base. The vineyard used to employ 860 people, said village leader Ragip Limaj.

"They took over the place that gave us our jobs," he said. "They took the chairs and tables of our school.

"They greet our children with three fingers," he added, alluding to the Serbian nationalist salute.

At the entrance to Malisevo, a half-dozen Russians checked identity documents of drivers. Coils of razor wire bar the road and are moved aside by a soldier to let cars pass. Both practices are unusual elsewhere.

At a crossroads, a young man selling flour said he bought 40 liters of diesel fuel from a Russian on an armored personnel carrier. "They are taking my business away!" said Izet Hoti, 35, selling fuel in mineral water bottles across the way.

Few of the Russian troops will talk to reporters. One, at the Banje barracks who identified himself only as a platoon leader, spoke of the difficulty his men have residing in a sea of ethnic Albanian hostility.

"The reason there is not a good relationship is because of their leaders, who tell them not to have contact with us," he said.

German troops, who operate in the Malisevo area, have sympathy for the Russians, a notoriously underpaid and ill-equipped army.

"They are doing a good job," said German brigade spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Michalski. "We hope in the next weeks ... it will get better," he said of their relationship with the locals.

Others are less charitable.

Captain Adam Fairbrother of Britain's Irish Guards, who control the Kosovo Polje area, said the Russians "drink vodka at the [base] gates and sing songs loudly" with Serbs who gather there, and sit in cafes in town. The Russians frequently pass through to do food shopping.

"They are less disciplined than the British or American forces in the area," he said.

But in Kosovo Polje, the Russians are welcomed. They have set up a field hospital next to a Serb-run clinic. A Russian doctor, who also wouldn't give his name, said he treats 20-30 people a day, including a few Albanians. Serbs, local officials say, are too scared to make the 15-minute drive to Pristina's ethnic Albanian-run hospital.

In a grimy cafe, Zenen Dubovic, 30, said he welcomed the Russians. Dubovic is a Roma, or Gypsy, another group hostile to the ethnic Albanians.

"We trust them, because we are the same religion," he said.