Last week Slobodan Milosevic crafted some fairly reasonable sounding words, in the company of Russia's Boris Yeltsin.
But the Yugoslav leader is not someone whose words can be taken at face value. He said he'd allow international humanitarian workers and monitors to enter Kosovo. He said he'd let fleeing Kosovo Albanians return. And he said he'd resume talks with representatives of the 90 percent of Kosovo's population that is Albanian on the central question of autonomy for the province.
But he stopped adamantly short of the key demand: that Serbia withdraw the security forces whose raids have forced nearly 80,000 Kosovars to become refugees and resulted in some 250 deaths. If the activities of these forces don't quickly cease - and there's no evidence of this as yet - Milosevic's other concessions mean little.
Meanwhile, NATO jets have scrambled as a warning of what could happen if conflict escalates in Kosovo. But the option of military intervention is resisted by some members of the six-nation Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia. One of the members, Russia, is set against it. But to appear unwilling to use force in this instance is to court a replay of the human tragedy of Bosnia - to say nothing of a regional explosion that could engulf Serbia, Albania proper, Macedonia, and possibly Greece and Turkey.
The Milosevic-Yeltsin agreement, if acted on quickly, could help. But Milosevic's insistence that international mediators be excluded from autonomy talks is no help. Autonomy for the Albanians of Kosovo, within what's left of Yugoslavia, could resolve this crisis - though it's rejected by independence-minded Albanians, whether their tool of choice is a rifle or nonviolent political protest. If autonomy is to have any hope of success, it will require diligent outside mediation.
With militancy deepening in Kosovo, there's little time for lengthy diplomatic maneuvers at the UN or elsewhere. The US and others who want to avert Bosnia-like violence and possible regional war must demand prompt follow-through on Milosevic's reasonable words - then be ready to show him that intervention is a real option, not a bluff.