Can anyone keep peace between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo?

One truth emerges from this violent Christmas: only a Western military presence can bring calm
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The Independent Culture
SO MUCH for General Winter, and the stillness that for a few frozen months, at least, was supposed to lie across the tormented land of Kosovo. These days, however, when Christians fight Muslims across the snowy hillsides of the southern Balkans, not even Christmas can halt the bloodshed. British and German troops may once have respected a truce of sorts in the trenches of Flanders, but in 1998, when Serbs and ethnic Albanians are in the field, Christmas Eve is when ceasefires collapse. And not only ceasefires. Perhaps the most important casualty of this violent Christmas weekend is the old notion of how this dirty war might be ended.

Unnoticed until now, over the past few weeks, its contours have subtly shifted. Previously there was no argument about the villain of the piece. This was Slobodan Milosevic's war. He had started it back in 1989 (and with it the entire Balkan tragedy that would follow) by scrapping the autonomy Kosovo and its overwhelming Albanian majority had previously enjoyed, and even now, he retains the prime responsibility. His savage, utterly disproportionate crackdown on the ethnic Albanians last spring set the stage for a summer of fighting which would make refugees of a quarter of a million people, pit Russia against the West and ultimately have B-52s waiting, engines revving, on British airfields. Then came the October ceasefire agreement, providing for Serbian withdrawal, the start of political negotiations, and the despatch of 2,000 unarmed international observers to make sure everyone kept their word.

This time however, no matter how much you detest the regime in Belgrade, matters are not so simple. The Kosovo Liberation Army is at least as much to blame for the collapse of the ceasefire. To be sure, the Serbs are overreacting: is a column of tanks really required to avenge the death of a single policeman? But the KLA, too, is spoiling for a fight. It has acquired new arms, above all anti-tank weapons to nullify the most potent asset of the Serb forces, and shows absolutely no interest in the political talks which are supposed to start next month. Bomb Milosevic, says the heart. But this time the head resists.

In truth, and despite every vow made by Western foreign ministers at meetings without number, Kosovo looks more like Bosnia with every passing day.The killing, admittedly, is nowhere near on the same scale. But even before half of them have even taken up their stations, the OSCE monitors are acquiring an uncanny resemblance to the unhappy men of Unprofor earlier in the decade, the Bosnian "peacekeepers" with no peace to keep. Yesterday, OSCE teams were sent to the village of Obranca, focal point of the latest fighting. How long, one wonders, before some of their number are taken hostage, or killed in the crossfire.

So what next? Conceivably, of course, this being the season of hope, good will, and irrational optimism, events might yet get us off the hook. Just maybe, after a decade of slaughter and barbarity, 1999 will prove to be the final year of this most terrible of the 20th century's Balkan wars. Maybe next year will at last see the demise of the Milosevic regime, brought down peaceably from within by the economic misery and international obloquy it has inflicted upon the Serbian nation. Maybe its successor will be more sensible and less nationalist, open to a reasonable accommodation with the Kosovan Albanians. Maybe too, sweet reason will also descend on the shoulders of these latter, despite the atrocities and humiliations heaped upon them by Belgrade. And then again, 1999 may be when Saddam Hussein makes a state visit to Washington.

In practical terms, the West faces the dilemma of dealing with a conflict in which the middle ground of political negotiation, freely entered into by both parties, is now scorched earth. Plainly, we cannot let the two sides simply fight it out. In the short term, this would probably lead to another cycle of Serbian repression, horrific media pictures and public clamour forcing Western governments to intervene in much haste, but to little lasting effect.

But if crackdown is unacceptable, so too - at least for now - is an independent Kosovo, which the Western chancelleries argue might tear Macedonia apart. For even autocrats cannot ignore the bodybag factor. Before too long, the cost of enforcing control could prove too high even for the Serbs, and the Albanians who outnumber them nine to one in Kosovo would have their way. Thus the spectre of an inchoate "Greater Albania", which would further destabilise an already unstable region and perhaps drag Greece, Bulgaria and, worst of all, Turkey, into the fighting. In the long run, I have reluctantly come to believe, mono-ethnic states of this kind are the only bricks with which to build the new Balkans. Right now, however, there is barely a smaller Albania, let alone a greater one.

But this violent Christmas has at least one merit: it has laid bare the harsh and central truth about Kosovo. Whatever is adjudged the best solution - whether to defy Balkan logic and attempt to maintain an ethnically-mixed Kosovo somehow linked to Serbia, or to lay the ground for a new Albanian political entity in the southern Balkans - only a credible Western military presence will allow it to be put into practice. And we are not talking about unarmed observers, monitors or "verifiers", but ground troops with all the hardware they need, in Kosovo for the long haul.

Kosovo, in short, will have to become another Bosnia. Not, we must ensure, in the sense of the brutality and slaughter which preceded the settlement imposed by the Americans at Dayton, but in becoming a de facto Western protectorate as Bosnia now is, installed under the guise of another Dayton. Ideally, of course, the instigators of this accord would be European statesmen, and the troops who make it stick should be European troops. But Kosovo has come too soon for Europe, whatever the agreement on a future European defence identity between Britain and France.

The prime mover will have to be Nato, in other words the Americans. The United States will not like it, no more than it liked the prospect of its ground troops committed to Bosnia - and perhaps even less, for in Bosnia a presence which was originally meant to last six months has now become open-ended. For the US and its allies to meet some predetermined artificial deadline to withdraw, Washington knows full well, would simply invite disaster.

And so in Kosovo too. But a permanent military presence there would almost certainly prove as effective as it has in Bosnia, with remarkably little loss of life. It would guarantee the essentials: the Kosovo Albanians would be freed from the threat of Serbian oppression and violence; the Serbs would be assured of access to their holy sites, political and religious. Above all, it would buy time, to wait out Slobodan Milosevic.

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