Leading Article: Kosovo's rebuilding must be founded on trust and tolerance

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The Independent Culture
IT IS still premature to talk of "victory" in the war in Kosovo, despite the end of the bombing campaign. That did not stop some Serbs shooting from handguns and playing loud techno music on Wednesday night to celebrate their nation's great victory. But is there any sense in which Slobodan Milosevic can claim to have gained anything from the two-and- a-half months of war?

The answer to that question must be No. The one point which Belgrade claims to have secured in the Ahtisaari-Chernomyrdin deal which was not available at the talks at Rambouillet before the bombing began, is international recognition that Kosovo is part of Serbia. It is true that there is no provision in the agreement for a referendum on Kosovo's status in three years' time, as was implied at Rambouillet, but by fighting this war, and by "ethnically cleansing" Kosovo, Milosevic has ensured that Serbia has lost the province. It will be occupied by an international force under the full legal authority of the United Nations. Other countries were reluctant to support Kosovar independence before, but if, in three years' time, a government in Kosovo, clearly representing the wishes of the majority of the population of the province, declares independence, who will stop it?

For all the demonisation of Milosevic as "wily", he has turned out to be a disastrous leader of Serbia, even from the point of view of extreme Serb nationalists. It now appears that Kosovo was Serbia's Vietnam, not Nato's. Milosevic seems to be following the advice of Senator George Aiken, who called on President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 to "declare victory and withdraw" from Vietnam.

If Milosevic has lost, does that mean that the Kosovo Albanians have won? Again, it would be wrong to proclaim victory, but for different reasons. It will be possible, it is devoutly to be hoped, to declare victory for the rule of international law and for the basic human rights of the Kosovo Albanians, if and when the refugees start to move back into their homes. But to claim victory for one ethnic group over another would be to destroy the very principle for which Nato has fought.

The question for Kosovo now is whether its returning people can rebuild the trust, self-reliance and social networks needed to sustain a viable and democratic society. They begin with the advantage of strong extended families, but it is, again, too early to say. What we do know is that the society that is rebuilt brick by brick, person by person, by the biggest logistical operation in the UN's history, will not be the same as the Kosovo that existed before the war, or before Milosevic stripped it of its autonomy in 1989. We can only hope that, built on the foundation of a just war that defeated "ethnic cleansing", it will be a society embodying the virtue of tolerance.