AS horrible as the Balkans war has been, with its millions of refugees and tens of thousands of casualties, the possibility remains that it will get much worse.
Now that Serbs largely have Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serb-populated regions of Croatia in their grip, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic may turn his attention to a new target: Kosovo.
"If there's anywhere else there's going to be bloodshed, it's Kosovo," says Janusz Bugajski, associate director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The next few weeks could be crucial, Mr. Bugajski says, as Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic struggles against the nationalist Serbian president over power.
Kosovo is the southernmost province of Serbia; 90 percent of its 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. With Mr. Milosevic under increasing political pressure at home, he might see creating a Kosovo "crisis" as his best way to rally support among Serbs.
"Anytime Serbia wants, it can start a conflict in Kosovo," says Bujar Bukoshi, Kosovo's exiled prime minister.
Bukoshi was named to his post after internationally monitored elections were held in Kosovo last May. Serbia declared the elections illegal, and Mr. Bukoshi now works out of Germany and Slovenia.
Bukoshi was in Washington last week pleading for aid, and he received at least a sympathetic welcome at the United States State Department, where he met with Undersecretary for Political Affairs Ronald Kantor.
Despite Kosovo's overwhelmingly Albanian population, most Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their national consciousness. It was there in 1389 that Serbs were overwhelmed by Ottoman Turks, dooming their kingdom.
A perceived Albanian threat could thus unite Serbs and distract them from their own troubles.
The US does not recognize Kosovo's self-declared independence. (Albania is the only nation that does.) "We have consistently urged the Serbs to cease repression of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and not to engage in the use of force, and finally to restore all the elements of autonomy which were taken away from Kosovo in 1989," says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Speaking through an interpreter, Bukoshi said he was heartened by his US meetings but would like more concerted international action. This does not necessarily mean use of ground force.
"The US could threaten Serbia" with military force, he says, and, "if the US means what it says, it won't be necessary to use military force."
Tensions in Kosovo are rising, and economic sanctions are causing hardship, Bukoshi says. Serbian police have long had the area under firm control, and thousands of Serbian refugees have arrived in recent weeks as part of an official Serbian resettlement program. Serb leaders have said they want to increase the Serbian percentage of the Kosovo population to some 40 percent.
The vast Albanian majority is helpless in the face of these moves, Bukoshi claims. They are unarmed and have no possibility of raising any kind of military defense of their own while under tight Serb control.
If Serbia did start a conflict, Albania itself would probably be drawn into the conflict, he adds, to try and protect its kinsmen across the border. Macedonia, which itself has a 30 percent ethnic Albanian minority, might also decide to fight, rather than face Serbia alone sometime in the future. In turn, Greece might then decide the time was ripe to slice off a bit of a distracted Macedonia.
This may seem an unrealistic scenario, but George Kenney, a State Department desk officer for Yugoslavia who resigned in protest over US policies in August, judges the probability of it coming to pass as greater than 50-50.
It is possible, though, that Milosevic will attempt a less dramatic form of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
With Serbia already in full military control of the region, and terrified Kosovans already running across the border into Albania, he could just wait for resettlement and fear to do their work.