Kosovo Conundrum

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Threatened NATO airstrikes have apparently made Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic back down on Kosovo.

On the other hand, he could again weasel himself more time to maneuver. Western countries have offered him an interim agreement that would leave Serbia effectively in possession of Kosovo, albeit not fully enough for him.

In either case, bombs or some deal, the core of the conflict remains untouched. Bombing would be justifiable only if it served a serious political purpose. Only a profound change in Kosovo's status holds a chance of restoring peace and protecting the large ethnic Albanian majority from further brutalization. The immediate necessity is to stop the killing once and for all and to avert a humanitarian catastrophe for more than 250,000 refugees this winter.

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The chief obstacle to a solution is the principle of sovereignty governing international relations. It forbids intervention in the domestic affairs of any state. That applies even to Iraq, subjected to harsh sanctions after launching and losing an aggressive war.

As for Milosevic, having begun the Yugoslav war with its blind destruction and murderous ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia, mitigation may lie in his having played a key role in the Dayton peace accord.

Reaffirming Serbia's sovereign rule over Kosovo would make a mockery of all the Atlantic community and the United Nations have done to succor the Kosovo Albanians. Their future must be taken out of Milosevic's hands. So outrageous a violation of human rights is no longer a domestic matter. It's an international emergency. Those who seek a legal precedent for decisive action will find it in the prohibited zone declared in northern Iraq to protect the Kurdish population from Iraqi forces. A world now rethinking such economic axioms as the virtue of free markets can take a new look at political sovereignty.

Once Milosevic has been made to remove his military and security enforcers, Kosovo can be treated as the fully autonomous province of Serbia it was before he started his chauvinistic rampage in 1989. Better, it could become a self-governing republic in the Yugoslav Federation.

Several traps lie in the way. Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their nation, having been defeated there by the Ottomans centuries ago. To preclude arousing the Black Hand irredentism that flourishes in the Balkans, Serb monasteries and monuments must be respected and the remaining Serb population protected.

Many Kosovars' claim to full independence must be curbed. It could feed the demand of Albanian nationalists like former president Sali Berisha for a Greater Albania. This might move the ethnic Albanians who form a quarter of the population of Macedonia to break away to the west. Once that happened, Bulgaria could seize the eastern part it has always claimed, and Greece the south, in the name of stability.

Nations intent on saving Kosovo Albanians have no desire to start a third Balkan war nor to fight a war with Serbia.

The change needed in Kosovo must and can be made by diplomacy, larded with enough incentives to persuade Serbia to swallow it, but also backed by believable military power to make Milosevic think before lashing out against it.

For this to be possible, the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Serbian tyranny must be promptly filled. An international presence in Kosovo is indispensable from the start - and for a long time to come. The moderate government of Albania wants one too for its shaky self.

Bosnia today, with its NATO stabilization force and civil authority in the hands of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is a good example.

Those appalled by another commitment need to ask what the alternative is.

THE greater part of the burden would be borne by the European nations whose dithering in the early period of the war opened Pandora's box. It would focus the European Union now trying to find a common security policy. And NATO, through which the US would remain engaged, might find its missing mission.

The challenge is there. So are the means to meet it. Decisive is cool determination to stay the course. And there, as things stand, is the rub.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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