To judge from the chorus in our media, the story in Kosovo is simple. It is Bosnia all over again. The Serbian war machine is on the loose to commit mayhem. There is evidence of ethnic cleansing and unspeakable atroci- ties. But only when the Serbs have done their worst does Nato finally gear up to act - too little too late. What Australians call a media "beat up" is under way. News programmes are strong on horror, short on analysis.
President Milosevic certainly bears the bulk of the blame for the descent into bloodshed of Yugoslavia since 1991, but it isn't possible to right the terrible crimes committed by Serbs between 1991 and 1995 by exaggerating or distorting what is happening now. Clearly security forces responsible to Milosevic have committed gratuitous acts of murder against civilians in Kosovo. A great deal of the province has been laid waste. But compare the death toll in Kosovo since fighting started in February with the mayhem that went on over a similar period in Bosnia in 1992. The contrast in casualties is on a dramatic scale. About a thousand people have been killed in Kosovo. That was a modest week's work for the Serbs in 1992.
The fighting in Kosovo started differently, too. In the case of Bosnia the Serb militants reacted to referendum results they did not like by being the first to take up arms and start a campaign of ethnic cleansing to punish the majority. In Kosovo, on the other hand, it was the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that upped the ante by starting a guerrilla campaign. Certainly the Serbian regime had suppressed the province's autonomy in 1989. In effect this meant removing local, largely Albanian Communists from power, and replacing them with Belgrade's nominees. If you have to be ruled by Communists it is probably better to be under the thumb of your own (though not in Albania itself, where the Stalinist rulers kept their people isolated even from the limited reforms of Tito), but it should be remembered how limited autonomy was before 1989.
Since then it is true that years of Serbian chicanery and thuggish disregard of Albanians have followed. Given that Albanians make up around 90 per cent of the province's population, perhaps it is surprising that open resistance to Serbian rule did not start much earlier. But it didn't. Led by their elected "shadow" president Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovo Albanians have pursued a strategy of Gandhi-style passive resistance. Even when Serbia was stretched by the Bosnian war and international sanctions, Rugova kept to that course.
He was denounced by obscure Kosovo emigre groups as a traitor to the nationalist cause. Ironically, these same groups, based in Germany and Switzerland, had close links with the Stalinist regime in Albania that ended only in 1992. They called for a Maoist-style partisan war against Serb rule. It was only when Albania imploded in 1997 that they could turn their rhetoric into reality. Then Kalashnikovs became two a penny and a route into Kosovo from outside became possible; and the KLA was born.
Reporters in Kosovo frequently repeat that the KLA fighters they see are just "ordinary farmers" defending their property and crops. Of course the vast majority of ill-equipped KLA fighters are simply locals up in arms, but the organisation is led by very different people. Guerrilla armies are always like that. How often in the past, from the Balkans in the Second World War to Vietnam, have we heard that the partisans were just ordinary people, only to find after their victory that it was the party core not the people who took power and then did the opposite of what the peasants thought they had been fighting for?
Like other freedom fighters before them, the KLA guerrillas have manipulated the media. In some cases they have provided European and American TV crews with footage of Serbian atrocities. There can be little doubt, too, that the KLA has pursued a policy designed to provoke reprisals from the Serbs, whose capacity for brutality was hardly in doubt after what had gone on in Bosnia. This was an approach refined in the 1940s by the partisans: kill a German, let the Wehrmacht take reprisals, recruit the survivors. This may have been an effective way of turning the enemy into a recruiting sergeant but it is hardly moral.
The KLA leaders hoped their insurrection would marginalise Rugova as his pacifist policy collapsed in the face of the expected Serb backlash. Rugova's support has remained remarkably resilient, however. This has led to increasingly tense divisions among the Kosovar Albanians. While all eyes were on the internal power struggle in Albania in mid-September, the KLA liquidated one of its ex-commanders, Ahmet Krasniqui, in Tirana, apparently for changing sides to Rugova. In Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, an attempt was made to murder one of Rugova's closest aides. The brutally successful Serb counter-offensive which reversed the KLA's early dramatic gains has set Kosovar Albanians at each others' throats.
During these events, the West has not been quite the naive and feeble bystander described by many advocates of intervention. Far from being mesmerised by Milosevic as it was in the early 1990s, the West, led by the United States, has been trying to topple him - but by indirect means. Just as the Nato presence in Bosnia has avoided a head-on clash with the leading Serb war criminals and preferred to catch only small fry while trying to induce the Serb elite there to back the Dayton settlement, so in rump Yugoslavia a variety of covert means have been deployed to undermine Milosevic.
The West backed his former protege, Milo Djukanovic, the President of Yugoslavia's other republic, Montenegro, in the hope that he would ally with ex-Serbian nationalists-turned-democrats such as Zoran Djindjic in Belgrade and overthrow Milosevic. When the KLA campaign began in spring and Nato's sabre also started to rattle, it was confidently hoped that war- and sanctions-weary Serbs might go out on the streets again and stay there till Milosevic resigned. Nothing of the sort happened. Unfortunately ordinary Serbs prefer a consistent nationalist bigot to yesterday's ethnic cleanser who turned coat for a decent dollar advance. Sadly the West has yet to put its money and influence behind any Serbian opponent of Milosevic who enjoys real public respect.
Nato air strikes are not likely to remove Milosevic from power. They may even cement his position. In any case, on past form, a few US cruise missiles will strike a few Yugoslav military bases sometime this week. As with Saddam so with Slobodan: Clinton's preferred use of force is a hands-off, safe-distance approach. By then, or certainly shortly afterwards, Milosevic will have agreed to let in the caravan of international humanitarian aid. The Serbs learnt in Bosnia how to cream off 60 per cent of Western aid and will happily do so again. So honours will be even. The West will have pretended to thunder and Belgrade will pretend to have been hit by lightning.
If Nato sent in ground forces to expel the Serbs, it would create the independent Kosovo demanded by the KLA and, frankly, almost all Albanians. This would destabilise Macedonia and other neighbours, and the West does not want that. In any case, risking ground troops in a two-front war to expel the Serbs and control the KLA is simply something Nato would be mad to do. So Kosovo will fester. A cold winter will calm the fighting but not diminish the antagonism and in spring we will hear the cries of "never again" again.
Mark Almond is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, and author of 'Europe's Backyard War' (Heinemann, 1992).