NATO scenarios for Kosovo

Airstrikes, peacekeepers may come to Serbia in the latest of a historyof interventions in the Balkans.

When Austria invaded Serbia in 1914, the Serbs fought gallantly alongside the Allies and eventually sent the invaders fleeing.

When the Nazis tried to occupy Serbia in 1941, the Serbian resistance became legendary, and Hitler's war machine was humiliated by the small Balkan country.

Now, as the 16-member NATO alliance prepares to take action in Kosovo, in what would be the third major intervention in Serbia in the 20th century, the tables have turned. Serbia has no real allies. Many Serbs consider Kosovo, their southern province with a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, to have already been lost.

Negotiators are still in Rambouillet, France, trying to work out a deal that would grant Kosovo's ethnic Albanians autonomy and require the Serbian and Yugoslav forces to substantially withdraw from the region - in favor of peacekeeping troops from NATO. But regardless of the outcome of the talks, some form of intervention seems imminent. That decision, by and large, lies with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

On one hand, Mr. Milosevic may strike a last-minute deal and allow into Kosovo as many as 30,000 foreign troops, some 4,000 of which would likely be American. Though NATO and possibly Russian soldiers would in theory be neutral, many Serbs would view them as protectors of the ethnic Albanians, who are trying to wrest Kosovo from Serbia.

The second possibility is that Milosevic may defy the international community and refuse NATO. That could lead to punitive airstrikes. At a meeting this week with US envoy Christopher Hill, Milosevic reiterated his position that foreign troops on Serbian soil are unacceptable. On Thursday foreign embassies in Belgrade were beginning preparations to remove nonessential personnel from the country.

Should the Serbs be pitted against NATO, even the most optimistic hard-liners think they cannot win. "We are almost helpless in a real war with NATO," says Miroslav Hadzic, a retired Yugoslav Army colonel who is president of the Center for Civil and Military Relations.

"But the nature of Milosevic's authoritarian regime," continues Mr. Hadzic "is that his political resources are at the end and he may be willing to push society into conflict to preserve his own power."

A third and less likely outcome is that the ethnic Albanians will play the spoilers in Rambouillet, refusing to sign a deal that disallows independence. But US diplomats are confident that the Albanians will comply in the end.

Either of the first two scenarios, many Serbs say, will be a death blow to Kosovo, which is regarded here as the mythical birthplace of the Serbian nation.

According to Mile Bjelajac, a senior fellow at the Serbian Institute for Contemporary History, ethnic Albanian autonomy in Kosovo, even if monitored by NATO troops, could lead to the final migration of the Serbs out of Kosovo - a process that dates back to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje, when the Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs and went on to occupy the country for 500 years.

"Every intervention to take Kosovo from us means a diminished Serbian population in Kosovo," says Mr. Bjelajac. "This would be the final step."

Because the Serbs may flee Kosovo rather than fight for it, diplomats and analysts say the greatest danger to NATO troops could be the ethnic Albanians, who are led by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). By accepting NATO troops, the ethnic Albanians would likely be asked to give up their dream of independence and settle for a similar kind of autonomy to that which they had up to 1989.

This week rebel leaders in Kosovo said they will not accept a peace plan unless it contains a provision allowing a referendum on independence in three or five years - something peace mediators have so far refused.

Diplomats say NATO troops, upon entering Kosovo, would need to disarm the KLA, which is loosely organized and factional. Otherwise there could be more fighting between the KLA and the Serbian police, leaving NATO stuck in the middle. A specific disarmament plan has yet to be released from Rambouillet, but one Western diplomat said this week that it would be impossible to round up all the KLA's weapons.

"I don't think we could necessarily go out in every village looking for arms," he says.

A greater potential problem with NATO troop deployment is that their mission will probably be open-ended, as President Clinton said this week. With thousands of troops already in nearby Bosnia, the US will be investing heavily in a distant region, where US interests are not so clearly defined.

History has shown that foreign intervention in the Balkans has been frequent, but not always successful. The region, a crucial link between East and West, has been troubled for centuries with changing borders and ethnic conflict. It has also been a front between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

"If you look at history you will see that peace has lasted shorter when it has been imposed," says Bjelajac, the historian.

In Bosnia this decade, the first few attempts at intervention failed. It was not until NATO bombed Bosnian Serb positions that a peace agreement was reached among the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians.

Now, NATO troops have been in Bosnia for four years in an open-ended military commitment. It's yet to be seen whether intervention will produce a lasting peace when the international community leaves.

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