For Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo cuts both ways.
Turmoil in the independence-minded province is necessary for his political survival. On the other hand, Kosovo could lead to his political demise.
"His survival hinges upon keeping Kosovo in limbo," says a Western diplomat in Yugoslavia, which is made up of Serbia and Montenegro. "That's why I don't think he's in a position to bargain with Kosovo."
Mr. Milosevic has ruled Yugoslavia like a dictator for the past decade, during which time he has accelerated the breakup of the country, lost wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and plunged his people into poverty. Although a "Greater Serbia" has been his driving force, the country has only shrunk under his helm. Now he may lose Kosovo.
Nevertheless, through his deft control of state media and the ineffectiveness of opposition politicians, Milosevic last summer won a four-year term as president of Yugoslavia. Previously the president of the Republic of Serbia, he successfully towed his power to the federal post.
Shortly thereafter, he began his campaign in Kosovo, the southern Serbian province where a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority is calling for independence. On Feb. 28 he launched a bloody attack aimed at a burgeoning separatist guerrilla movement known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
By killing women and children and making a martyr of KLA leader Adem Jashari, Milosevic fueled the rapid growth of the armed ethnic-Albanian independence movement. As one Albanian put it, "When the police come to your house to kill you, you have no choice but to fight."
Today, with the KLA controlling an estimated 40 percent of Kosovo and more than 300 dead, all-out war seems inevitable.
"I think that Belgrade is primarily responsible here," President Clinton said last week, referring to the Yugoslav capital from which Milosevic governs.
While Milosevic sometimes appears to be a blundering politician, most analysts say he knows exactly what he is doing. It was in 1987, as a relatively unknown politician, that he first used Kosovo to serve his political aims. "No one should dare beat you," he told a crowd of Kosovar Serbs in his most famous words. Soon thereafter he became president of Serbia and pushed Yugoslavia into Europe's bloodiest war since World War II.
In an ironic twist, the war ended with Milosevic negotiating in America on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs - as a peacemaker.
But will he play that role again? Shortly before a recent meeting with US envoy Richard Holbrooke, Milosevic informally offered Kosovo the same kind of autonomy it had before he rose to power in 1989. Autonomy is supported by the international community, but not by the ethnic Albanians, who are clinging to dreams of independence.
Western diplomats say Milosevic's offers of autonomy are not genuine because the ethnic Albanians cannot accept them with "a gun to their head."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Milosevic is ready to close the Kosovo book at this time.
With autonomy, some 2 million Albanians would suddenly join the political process, and Milosevic would probably lose his slight majority of parliamentary seats. Milosevic would also become an easy target for opposition parties, who could cast him as the man who lost Kosovo. Finally, without a war, Milosevic could not use nationalism to gain support - and he would have to concentrate on other issues, such as the economy.
Milosevic stands to gain much more by keeping Kosovo open. If he continues to do so, he may eventually draw international intervention to Yugoslavia, and use the Americans as a scapegoat - like he did in Bosnia. International intervention could also save the ethnic Albanians by allowing them to accept something other than independence and by saying, "the Americans made us do it."
Yet Milosevic is walking a fine line. He is already losing political influence in Belgrade, Montenegro, and the Serbian half of Bosnia. And, though many Serbs see Kosovo as their Mecca, most are neither emotionally nor economically prepared to fight for it.
Finally, the more Milosevic stalls, the stronger the KLA becomes. They are now the ones calling the shots for the ethnic Albanians - and they have not indicated that they will settle for less than independence.
Should he fall from power, Milosevic's very survival could be in jeopardy.
There is growing speculation that he could become a target for The Hague's war-crimes tribunal. Or, people in Belgrade are increasingly saying, he could find himself in a situation like that of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who died at the hands of his own people after he was violently toppled from power.
"Deep down, Milosevic does not care about Kosovo," says Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. "His only interest is to survive."