Another day, another terrible Balkan tragedy

What is happening in Kosovo is a tragedy. Once again, Milosevic has called our bluff.
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HISTORY, IT has famously been observed, repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. But the Balkans, as usual, defy convention. For what is happening in Kosovo is tragedy. At least the West has learnt the lesson of Bosnia, we said - myself included - when the Yugoslav army began its crackdown last March, and Nato quickly responded by stepping up sanctions against Belgrade and carrying out air combat exercises close to Kosovo's border with Albania.

Six months on, just as he once did in Bosnia, Slobodan Milosevic has again called the West's bluff. His practised antennae have detected that, for all Nato's chest-thumping, for all the imprecations of "Never Again", we did not have the stomach to intervene militarily. With each communique of the Contact Group of major powers set up to deal with the former Yugoslavia, the threats of force and the mantralike repetition that "all options are open" rang hollower. And now the top Western policymakers have forgotten.

True, a US delegation has just completed a fact-finding mission - and unearthed some truly disturbing facts. Moreover, the outlines of a plan for a ceasefire, followed by an interim political settlement, could be emerging. But Washington is paralysed as it waits for the Starr report. Germany, the European country with most at stake in the Balkans, is less than three weeks from a general election. And compared to the lurid scandal engulfing President Clinton, the vertiginous crisis in Russia, and the turmoil on the world's financial markets, what does this tiresome, seemingly interminable squabble in a remote south-eastern corner of Europe matter? So Milosevic has seized his moment.

His current seven-week offensive in Serbia's southern province seems to have broken the back of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is fighting for full independence, and forced the KLA's most effective units to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries. Over 250,000 people have been displaced, with 50,000 of them living in the open as the harsh Balkan winter approaches. And there are even more sinister similarities with Bosnia in the dark years between 1992 and summer 1995.

Just as in Bosnia, events in Kosovo "are rapidly developing into a humanitarian catastrophe," to borrow the words of Bob Dole, the former presidential candidate and an early - but long unheeded - advocate of strong action against the Bosnian Serbs. Worse still, we are told of how Serbs are separating men from among the Kosovo Albanian refugees and taking them off. From eyewitnesses, the US team has heard "chilling" accounts of atrocities. The war's official death toll of "hundreds" will surely have to be revised sharply upwards. Even the concentration camps of the Bosnian war could be on the verge of a comeback, following the announcement by Belgrade of ten "assisted points" where refugees may settle - under the very tightest scrutiny and control, it may be assumed, of the Serbian security forces.

And remember the disastrous trip of the former Secretary of State Warren Christopher to London in May 1993, which laid bare the differences between the Western allies and gave Messrs Karadzic and Milosevic their opportunity? Today, Washington and the Europeans are bickering again. This time, the US special envoy Christopher Hill has accused the EU of ignoring Kosovo, in its obsession with creating a united Europe which excludes the Balkans. And who is to blame him? Gathered in solemn session in Salzburg at the weekend, the EU's Foreign Ministers took note of their failure to install Felipe Gonzalez as a mediator in Kosovo... and agreed to ban flights to their countries by the Yugoslav airline JAT. Ban flights? But didn't they decide precisely that back in June? Well, yes, but nothing actually happened. And even now, Britain insists on 12 months to bring it into force.

There are no easy answers. If Bosnia was Warren Christopher's "problem from hell", Kosovo comes from somewhere nearby. Undoubtedly, the KLA has committed atrocities of its own. It has no clearcut leadership: its earlier successes undermined Ibrahim Rugova, the political leader of the Kosovo Albanians who remains the best bet for a negotiated compromise. And Kosovo, province of Serbia, differs from Bosnia, which was an independent state when the Bosnian Serbs set about destroying it. Clearly, Western intervention against the wishes of an independent country's government raises more delicate questions of international law.

But the basics have not changed. 90 per cent of Kosovo's population is Albanian, whose previous limited political autonomy was removed by President Milosevic as he succumbed to the rabid Serb nationalism that detonated the entire Balkan conflict. The blame for the Kosovo crisis lies with him, and he should be stopped. Fear of igniting a wider conflagration in the south Balkans was one reason why Nato was so chary of air strikes earlier this year. Now, however, the flux of KLA fighters and Kosovan refugees into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia only makes that danger greater.

It would be nice to think that the suppression of the guerrillas is seen by President Milosevic as as a unpleasant but necessary prelude to a political settlement with the moderates, and the return of a generous measure of autonomy to the province. Such is the plan elaborated by Mr Hill, which stops short of independence but which allows the agreement to be re-opened after three years. But we trust the Yugoslav leader at our peril. He is a master at stalling. Kosovo is merely proving anew what Bosnia long since proved - that the only language Mr Milosevic understands is the imminent or actual use of force.

We have the luxury of persuading ourselves that Kosovo is Milosevic's last stand. Croatia and Slovenia have gone, Bosnia has gone, the former Macedonia has gone; Montenegro is going. Only Serbia - a war-drained and war-weary pariah Serbia - is left. Kosovo, where the Balkan war began, will mark his demise. But the Kosovo Albanians, as the first snows of winter settle on the hilltops, soon will have no such comfort.

Barring retreat by Mr Milosevic, Nato will have to intervene to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe of which Mr Dole warned. At the very least a demilitarisation of Kosovo is required. And words alone will no longer do. "One thing I'm sure of," the German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel opined at the weekend, "Milosevic is not going to win this confrontation." To which one sadly re-acts: Oh, no?