AS the world celebrates the hoped-for end of four years of carnage in the Balkans, the place where it all began has been largely forgotten.
The tiny province of Kosovo in southern Serbia is home to 2 million ethnic Albanians, who have endured years of repression because of their demand for self-rule. Kosovo was the pretext used by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to whip up the Serbian nationalism that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The former Yugoslavia was made up of six republics and two autonomous provinces, one of which was Kosovo. The province is cherished by Serbs as the ''cradle'' of their centuries-old culture and Christian Orthodox faith. Serbs, however, make up only one-tenth of Kosovo's population of 2.1 million.
Kosovo's autonomous status was revoked by Mr. Milosevic in 1989, after the Albanian population demanded self-rule.
As the rival Yugoslav factions prepare to sign a peace treaty in Paris Dec. 14, Kosovo's plight remains as severe as ever. With Serbia now free to redeploy troops, money, and attention to Kosovo, it could grow even worse.
''The danger exists,'' says Ibrahim Rugova, president of the Albanians' self-declared Republic of Kosovo, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here. ''That's why I've been pushing for some kind of international protection or an international presence so that would not happen.''
Eager to secure Milosevic's cooperation in ending the conflict in Bosnia, Clinton administration officials who brokered the peace accord were reluctant to press the issue of Kosovo too hard.
''It seems to me that Kosovo was pushed to the side,'' says Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York, who cochairs the congressional Albanian Issues Caucus.
''What the administration has done in Bosnia is terrific, so I don't fault them for wanting to keep the peace plan from falling apart,'' says Representative Engel. ''On the other hand, I don't want the Kosovo Albanians to be left holding the bag either.''
Administration officials insist that protecting the minority rights of Albanians remains a high priority. They point to the ''line in the sand'' to protect the Albanian minority drawn by the presence of more than 500 American troops in neighboring Macedonia.
In an apparent attempt to demonstrate continuing concern, Secretary of State Warren Christopher invited Mr. Rugova to visit Washington last week.
Rugova's party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, responded to the revocation of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 by declaring an independent Kosovo and establishing a semi-underground government that has never received international recognition.
Since then, Serbia has stepped up its repression, seizing property, conducting show trials, and allowing police brutality to go unchecked. Diplomatic analysts speculate that Serbia's ultimate objective is to force the region's Albanian majority to flee, as an estimated 200,000 already have.
Tensions in Kosovo are already high because of the resettlement there of thousands of Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. Rugova says the situation in Kosovo ''continues to be very repressive and grave.''
The Clinton administration supports autonomy but not outright independence for Kosovo and in principle opposes any Serb action that might trigger an explosion of violence in Kosovo.
''The Bush administration made it clear that there would be serious consequences if the Serbs were responsible for an explosion in Kosovo, and that remains our policy,'' Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, told reporters at a Monitor breakfast in early December.
As for pressuring Milosevic to change his policy in Kosovo, administration officials say, that is another matter. The US supported lifting UN economic sanctions on Serbia as a reward for Serbia's support for the peace agreement without reference to Kosovo.
A secondary ''outer wall'' of sanctions against Serbia remains in place, with Serbia denied membership in international financial institutions. A Clinton administration official says Serbia's human rights record in Kosovo will be weighed in deciding whether to remove the secondary sanctions. ''If Serbia took steps, which we interpreted to be violations of human rights in the region, that would be cause for us to consider further isolating Belgrade,'' an administration official says.
But history persuades Rugova that Ko-sovo can't settle for autonomy within Serbia. ''We've had a very bad experience with all the Serb regimes,'' he says.
Adds Engel: ''I don't think you can have a solution to the problems in the Balkans- without dealing with the issue of Serbian oppression of the Albanians in Kosovo.''