Act Now in Kosovo, or Regret It Later

The massacres perpetrated in Kosovo by Serb security forces may signal the start of a new Balkan war that will sooner or later pull in NATO.

Belgrade has orchestrated the murder of ethnic Albanian civilians for three main reasons:

1. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic wants to instill mass terror among Kosovars on the eve of their "illegal" presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 22.

2. Mr. Milosevic felt he had received a freer hand in Kosovo from US special envoy Robert Gelbard because of Belgrade's support for the relatively moderate Dodik government in Bosnia's Serb entity. In his recent visit to Pristina, Mr. Gelbard unwittingly undercut the validity of the peace option by underscoring American support for "Yugoslav integrity."

3. At a time of mounting discontent in Montenegro and a collapsing Yugoslav economy, Milosevic is seeking to capitalize on the nationalistic card - again. This may work in the short term, but his policies will precipitate new bloodshed and ultimately provoke both international intervention and the de facto recognition of an independent Kosovo.

The prospects for a political settlement between Belgrade and Pristina are receding each day. The two sides maintain diametrically opposed positions on Kosovo's future.

Meanwhile, organized militancy is on the rise among Albanians. Support for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is rapidly growing among angry young people. Each new death brings in at least 10 new recruits for the guerrilla force. The pacifist policies of Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova are increasingly challenged by radicals.

The bloody "scorched earth" military operations in the villages of central Kosovo are a form of state terrorism. By contrast, the KLA has not targeted unarmed Serb civilians. Hence, if any organization is to be condemned as "terrorist" by Washington, it should be Milosevic's paramilitary police forces. Their attacks on civilians have raised the specter of mass revenge not only against Serb-Yugoslav institutions but also Serb civilians.

This will not be a struggle between conventional military units, but rather a "people's war" against the symbols and structures of Serbian control. Separating the two populations may be the only way to avert killing.

Another destabilizing factor is the failure of the international community to prevent an escalation of violence. Western powers have steadily lost credibility among broad sectors of the Albanian population. The KLA and its supporters have concluded that violence is the only answer for a couple of credible reasons:

* It will provoke a Serb crackdown and thereby help unite and mobilize public support for armed resistance.

* It can rapidly internationalize the Kosovo question, which Belgrade insists is an internal Serb affair.

The danger of a regional spillover is more serious in Kosovo's case than with earlier conflicts in Croatia or Bosnia. If mass slaughters continue, it will be difficult for the Albanian government to remain on the sidelines. Armed groups outside of Tirana's control will offer support for their Kosovar kinsmen and step up guerrilla attacks against Serb targets. In such a scenario, a border war is probable.

Macedonia will become another target for Albanian guerrillas as well as the exit for panicked Kosovar refugees. The destabilization of Macedonia's ethnic balance is of grave concern to neighboring states, as well as to the West. While Milosevic may seek to provoke conflict in Macedonia to distract international attention from Serbia, Albanian militants may promote clashes there in order to embroil Western powers in the struggle against Belgrade.

In such grim scenarios, Washington can't remain passive. Gelbard has reiterated that the use of force cannot be discounted. But at what point will Milosovic miscalculate and underestimate American resolve to intervene? And more important, what can Washington do to defuse the ticking time bomb, with or without its timid European allies?

Several options should be on the table. The tightening of economic sanctions is a possibility, though that is unlikely to prevent spiraling conflict. Some combination of diplomatic pressure and military threat against Belgrade would be much more effective.

If we are serious about containing the crisis, NATO units must be deployed along the Albanian and Macedonian borders with Yugoslavia. Simultaneously, Washington should demand open access to Kosovo by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who can help defuse tensions.

The West also must demand an immediate dialogue between Milosevic and Rugova. If Milosevic refuses, the next step would involve recognition of Kosovo's "special status" and declaring the province a NATO protectorate. If Belgrade resists, then air strikes against Yugoslav military targets should convince Milosevic to remove his troops from Kosovo.

The 1995 NATO air strikes in Bosnia serve as a useful precedent. There are clear risks involved in this strategy, but the risk of inactivity is much greater.

* Janusz Bugajski is director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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