Belgrade still wears the clothes of greatness, the powerful capital of a prosperous nation called Yugoslavia, head of the non-aligned world, defier of Stalin, socialist friend of the West. Could this be why we hear so much, on the lips of our European diplomats, the magic words "Yugoslav Federation"? I heard it in Kosovo two weeks ago when a Foreign Office man was explaining his hopes for the 90 per cent ethnic Albanian province that is run by Serbia's 10 per cent minority. The future lay, he told us, with "meaningful negotiation within the Yugoslav Federation".
Memory, in the Balkans, is an elusive quality. Less than five years ago, we never heard those words Yugoslav Federation. We heard only the word "Serbia". Serbia was to blame for the Bosnian war, our diplomats told us. Serbia, the unspeakable. Serbia, the brutal. Serbia, the expansionist state of Milosevic. No respectable diplomat - save perhaps for the poor old, muddled Greeks - would be seen dead with the Yugoslav Federation as a fellow traveller. Yet now, with Kosovo in flames, we are all paying our respects to it. Anything, it seems, is preferable to another Balkan disintegration - especially if the next break-up means changing the national frontiers of old Yugoslavia.
There was a time, when the Americans were sticking the Dayton agreement together in the autumn of 1995, when we might have got away it. We all loved Mr Milosevic then because we needed his help in creating the new, grotesquely divided Bosnian state. The Albanians of Kosovo, having had their autonomy taken from them by Mr Milosevic six years earlier, wanted us to help them. But they were told to get lost. I suspect that's when the Yugoslav Federation, purged in 1991, was hauled out of its prison cell and restored to its former office. The most the Albanians could expect was the return of their limited autonomy, if they were lucky.
Europe and the United States, Nato and, indeed, Russia, meanwhile adopted the principle of the lazy fireman: they took the day off unless they smelt smoke. Thus they ignored the gentle, intellectual demands of Ibrahim Rugova, the democratically elected "president" of the non-existent Albanian Kosovar state. Only now, when the fire alarm has sounded and black smoke is - quite literally - curling up into the hot skies above Kosovo, does the world rush to hear what Mr Rugova has to say. And he is already irrelevant.
I recall our intake of breath last month when the spokesman of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla force which now controls a third of the province, announced that "political pluralism is a luxury" in the current conflict. He was denying Rugova any role in the coming struggle. Autonomy was no longer on the agenda. The Albanians of Kosovo wanted independence. Yet still we went on pretending that this was untrue. The American and British ambassadors set off to tour Kosovo, but on roads carefully chosen to avoid any KLA checkpoints. It wouldn't do to bump into those unhelpful militiamen who don't want what we are generously offering them: a return to limited self-rule in the Yugoslav Federation.
The illusions go further than geography. In all the statements from Washington and London, expressing their horror at the ethnic cleansing of south-western Kosovo by Milosevic's police forces, there is scarcely a reference to the KLA, other than vague calls for "restraint" and "an end to violence".
True, Milosevic's own brutality and crude political logic created the Kosovo crisis. But the West refuses to acknowledge that the Serbs in Kosovo are fighting a full-scale guerrilla war and that arms are indeed pouring over the border of that same Yugoslav Federation, which we apparently now respect, to fuel an Albanian insurrection.
Not once have we heard any reference to this arms smuggling by Western leaders. Despite all the photographs of mule-trains carrying rifles and anti-tank weapons across the Albanian-Kosovo border, the fighting is still portrayed as a case of Albanian dispossession by racist Serbs. And while we continue to lecture the Serbs - correctly - about the need to withdraw their cruel security forces from Kosovo, the KLA are continuing their ambushes on those same Serb militiamen. Yes, the KLA would also like the Serbs to withdraw, but not because they want to sit down and discuss autonomy afterwards.
Whether we like it or not, Kosovo is moving towards independence. But there is much concern about the failure of the KLA to outline any serious political policy for the future. "Privately, we all feel disappointed at the lack of any intellectual arguments from the KLA," an Albanian journalist told me. "They say they want independence but they don't say what kind of independence, what kind of democracy we can have. Is this supposed to mean unity with Albania? Is this supposed to involve the Albanians of Macedonia?" Other Kosovo Albanians are prepared to contemplate a transition autonomy, a period of years in which the 10 per cent Serb population of Kosovo would be given guarantees of security for themselves, their land and their religious sites under an Albanian government.
To his credit, the US envoy Richard Holbrooke did do the unthinkable in Kosovo last week and drove right up to a KLA checkpoint and - horror of horrors - talked to the gunmen he found there. It was a symbolic meeting only, but he at least acknowledged that the KLA were now people with whom the West will have to talk. Now the Americans have acknowledged secret talks with KLA officials in Europe.
It's easy to see the dangers. If the Albanians of Macedonia, all 25 per cent of them, want to be part of a new Albania, would not Greece and Serbia (and Bulgaria) want to consume what was left of Macedonia? Turkey and Greece - already enjoying another fruitless crisis over Cyprus - could go to war over Macedonia's break-up. And then where would we be? So why not throw those uppity Albanians a few morsels - legalisation of the Albanian language, jobs in state institutions, the reopening of the university for Albanians and a local government - and the whole of Kosovo will resign itself to another half-century of Balkan torpor.
The reality is that a full-scale war of independence is now under way in Kosovo. The West is going to have to deal openly with the KLA and to talk swiftly to the guerrilla leadership about their ultimate objectives. Only last week, the Serbs lost an entire state mining operation to the guerrilla forces; it is only a matter of time before the immensely wealthy Trepca mines north of Pristina themselves come under threat. An international mandate for Kosovo may ultimately be the only guarantee of a Serb future in the province - even if Mr Milosevic does not yet realise this.Reuse content