Leading Article: Kosovo, a tragic calamity that disfigures us all

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EARLIER THIS week, this newspaper devoted much of its front page to graphic coverage of yet another atrocity in Kosovo. Some readers may have wondered why. After all, are not five machine-gunned corpses in a tractor cart just the small change of a year-long war that has already taken more than 2,000 lives - and small beer compared to the massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians at Racak only a week earlier? Our answer is simple. Kosovo is a continuing calamity that disfigures us all: the Albanians and Serbs who fight there, and the Western allies and the Russians who have failed to halt them. The spotlight must be kept upon it until the barbarity is brought to an end.

Racak has been a wake-up call. The massacre may prove to be to Kosovo what Srebrenica was to the war in Bosnia. The great powers have been galvanised into action, not only by revulsion but by self-interest, too. This spring, Nato celebrates its 50th anniversary, and promulgates a new mission statement for the 21st century. What a mockery this gala would be if the mightiest alliance in history simultaneously stood watching as an inconsequential, impoverished corner of the continent it was set up to protect was tearing itself to pieces.

So, finally, we have a plan. Serbs and Albanians will be summoned to open negotiations next week, following the format of the Dayton conference which yielded a Bosnian settlement. Separately, President Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who is primarily responsible for the war, faces Nato bombing if he does not pull back his forces. And this, probably, is the last chance. In eight weeks or so, the Balkan winter ends, permitting full-scale fighting to resume.

Racak, however horrible, obscures a strategic stalemate. The Kosovo Albanian insurgents cannot win, but nor can they be eradicated. There are signs, too, that Mr Milosevic has concluded that, like it or not, Kosovo is - in the long run - a lost cause. The problem therefore becomes one of presentation. Believe it or not, in Serbia there are even fiercer nationalists than he, so for domestic political reasons he has an interest to present surrender as unavoidable, imposed by force majeure.

But maybe this logic is too neat. Maybe no amount of head-banging can overcome the loathing of the Albanians for the Serbs and persuade them to accept something short of full independence; maybe nothing can overcome the mystical conviction of some Serbs that Kosovo is their Holy Land, despite the fact that the Albanian share of its population is 90 per cent and rising. So what if the conference ends in failure - or one of the sides does not show up?

All along, The Independent has believed that sooner or later, Nato intervention on the ground was inevitable. Today the question is not whether to intervene, but when, and above all, how: will Nato go in as peace-keeper, as in Bosnia, or as peacemaker? The former presents relatively little problem. Like Bosnia, Kosovo would become a semi-consenting protectorate of the great powers, while passions might cool sufficiently to allow a lasting settlement to evolve.

But what if the fighting continues? In this case, too, Nato cannot stand and watch, or attempt to control matters at long range by bombing. The alliance would have no moral choice but to send in ground forces and impose a peace. This task, experts have estimated, might require more than 100,000 troops (a force equivalent to the entire British Army). It would be peacemaking on an epic - some would say lunatic - scale. But the stakes justify it. A decade ago in Kosovo, President Milosevic opened the Balkan wars of the Nineties. After so much bloodshed, after so many families have been destroyed - just as the one whose bodies were found in the haycart this week was destroyed - Kosovo is where these wars must end. Now.