THE FRAGILE PEACE; Is the KLA genuinely willing to honour its pledge to disarm? It will not be easy in a land where nearly every man owns a firearm
It was a moment politicians kill for. In his own land, Robin Cook may be less than universally loved. But in this small corner of the Balkans he is a liberator, hugged and kissed last week on the streets of Pristina, a conquering hero accorded his triumph by a delirious populace. And our Foreign Secretary, visibly stunned by the reception, found words to fit the end of Kosovo's recent nightmare. He spoke of justice, reconciliation and rebirth: "Having won the war," he told the crowd, "we must now build the peace.

In a sense, the process has already started. Even as more mass graves come to light and plumes of smoke hang over burning houses, Kosovo is taking its first faltering steps back towards normality. Ordinary cars and ordinary people, as well as Nato armoured cars and soldiers, are out on the streets. The lobby of the Grand Hotel (in truth anything but grand at the best of times) has become an impromptu employment exchange. In the down-at-heel block across the road where Mr Cook spoke, new furniture is being unpacked at the offices of Koha Ditore, the leading Albanian- language newspaper.

Out in the countryside, Kosovo's dispossessed are heading back to their villages. By the end of last week, the camps in Albania and Macedonia were emptying at a rate of 50,000 a day, as refugees ignored the pleas of aid agencies to wait just a little longer until their homes - or what remains of them - are made safe and basic amenities restored. So fast are things moving that, astonishingly, there may even be a harvest of sorts in September.

And hard on the heels of the soldiers, the refugees and the aid workers, a new army will shortly arrive. This one will be composed of damage assessors, surveyors, engineers and project managers from the four corners of Europe and beyond. What is more, the physical rebuilding may be relatively simple. Kosovo is smaller and ethnically more homogeneous than Bosnia. Its war has lasted less than three months, not three years, and unlike the conflict in Bosnia will not end in partition.

The World Bank, the European Investment Bank and a host of other financial institutions are lining up task forces and reconstruction plans. High level international meetings stretch ahead as far as the eye can see - a first donors' conference in July, likely to be followed by a summit attended even by Bill Clinton to discuss the mooted "Stability Pact" to promote democracy and economic development in the entire Balkan region. The early autumn will see another conference, where more funds will be pledged to join the $1.5bn already promised by the European Union. Almost certainly, a new currency, pegged to either the German mark or the dollar, will be introduced to replace the endlessly devalued Yugoslav dinar. The fact, moreover, that Kosovo will be an international protectorate, administered by the UN and guarded by Nato, means there is actually a chance the money will be used as intended. But no amount of assistance, attention and firepower can build a lasting peace. The new Kosovo will be utterly different from the one which existed before Slobodan Milosevic went there in 1987 to raise the banner of Serb nationalism. At least a third of its 175,000 Serb inhabitants have left in the wake of the departing Yugoslav army, and more will surely follow, despite the pleading of Nato, Serb politicians and the Serbian Orthodox Church for them to stay. And who can blame them? Now the plumes of smoke hang over houses where Serbs had lived, looted and torched by ethnic Albanians understandably bent on avenging everything they suffered at Serb hands. Nato may promise to be even- handed in its treatment of Serbs and Albanians. But there will be no specific ethnic sectors in Kosovo and thus no partition, veiled or otherwise. And K-For simply does not have enough peacekeepers to protect Serbs scattered across the country. The few hundred Yugoslav soldiers allowed back into Kosovo to help with mine clearing and to guard Serbian religious and cultural sites will themselves need protection by Nato. However sincerely the allies may strive for a multi-ethnic Kosovo, even the imminent arrival of 3,600 Russian peacekeepers will not alter the overwhelming likelihood of ethnic cleansing in reverse. The future Kosovo will be one almost exclusively populated by Albanians, whose last juridical links with Yugoslavia will sooner or later surely be severed completely. But even in a Kosovo without Serbs, there is no guarantee of lasting peace either between Nato and the Kosovo Liberation Army, or among Albanians themselves. The first crucial test will be the implementation of last week's demilitarisation agreement, in which the KLA promised to stop wearing uniforms and carrying arms, and to hand over all its weapons within 90 days at secure sites controlled by Nato. The deal is not perfect. "In my experience of the Balkans," says a senior allied general involved in the negotiations, "Every man has a weapon. When these individuals went to war, they brought their own weapons, so obviously it's going to be virtually impossible to get them all out of circulation. They see themselves as victors over the Serb army, and the future army of an independent Kosovo. If they're going to surrender their arms, they want to do so with dignity, without undue haste. We've had to make concessions, but what was the alternative? No agreement, and you drive them underground, and Nato would end up fighting the KLA." If all goes wrong, that could yet happen. No task is more urgent - and more difficult - than training a police force for Kosovo. No one knows how large the KLA is (the best guess is 5,000 to 10,000), and the problem is compounded by thugs masquerading as KLA guerrillas, but in reality gangsters seeking to cash in on the departure of the Serbs and the millions of dollars that will pour in with reconstruction. Ultimately, Nato can only hope that a desire for political respectability, coupled with the public statement of their aspiration to form a new police force or national guard, will persuade the KLA to keep their word. At this point the murky politics of the KLA become the politics of Albanian Kosovo. Ibrahim Rugova, long the peacetime political leader, is now out of the game. So precarious is his position, after Serb television broadcast him meeting Mr Milosevic during the war, that Mr Rugova did not even join the delegation of leading ethnic Albanians who saw Mr Cook this week. Making the running now is Hashim Thaci, the KLA's young political leader from whom Mr Cook extracted a public appeal for "good Serbs" not to leave. Head of a self-styled provisional Kosovo government set up this spring, Mr Thaci is widely described as Kosovo's "Prime Minister-in-waiting." First, however, he must tame the extremist KLA commanders who demand independence at once, and beat off the challenge of Bujar Bukoshi, head of a pre-war "government-in-exile" based in Germany, who still controls large sums of money collected from Kosovar emigre workers in Europe. The idea is to hold elections for a local administration within a year. But that may be pushing it. As Mr Cook told the Kosovar politicians that giddy afternoon in Pristina: "At the election you can argue - but before that you have to work together." Upon the success of that plea depends peace-building in Kosovo.