Restoring Kosovo will be lengthy, costly, and fraught with risks; THE RECONSTRUCTION
As Finland's President Martti Ahtisaari warned, slight- ly but charmingly misrendering an old proverb amid otherwise faultless English: "The proof of the pudding is when you eat it." And, he might have added, never more so than when one of the cooks bears the name of Slobodan Milosevic.

But let us suppose for an instant that every ingredient of the Kosovo dish, whose recipe was accepted with quite astonishing alacrity in Belgrade last week, proves perfect. Russian nationalists don't pull the rug from under Viktor Chernomyrdin. China and Russia do not obstruct passage of a clear-cut Security Council resolution at the United Nations. The quarrel over partition, masked or otherwise, of the province, quickly subsides. And finally, the Yugoslav president does not prevaricate and procrastinate - as is his wont - over his undertakings to Messrs Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin.

Even then the restoration of something approaching normality in Kosovo will be one of the lengthiest, costliest, and most risk-fraught enterprises in the political history of late 20th century Europe.

The initial step was due to be taken yesterday, with the first direct contacts between the Yugoslav army high command and Nato officials. Their task is to finalise the first and basic condition from which all else flows: a timetable for the withdrawal of Serbian troops from the province. Once this is agreed, then Nato will call a halt to the bombing, contingent on the Yugoslav side keeping its promises. Withdrawal could start within a week, and should be completed in the space of seven days. So, all being well, a Kosovo free of Serbian soldiers well before the end of the month.

But will Nato be ready? As the Serbs withdraw, K-FOR, the Nato-dominated peacekeeping force soon to be backed by the authority of a UN resolution, should have already started to deploy in the province. But the process is far from straightforward. Of K-FOR's envisaged 50,000 troops, 47,000 or more have been pledged by 30 countries, not counting the future Russian contingent. However, and despite a brusque acceleration of plans in the last few days, barely half that total is actually in the region yet. The rest have still to be sent there, and then trained for what will be the trickiest of missions.

The problems start with entry itself. Most of the obvious routes in have been heavily mined. A prime task of the "few hundred" Serb soldiers allowed back into Kosovo will be to remove these mines, but the job will take time. Once safely inside the province, K-FOR must work out a modus vivendi with the insurgents of the Kosovo Liberation Army, now the dominant political force among the ethnic Albanians, which has formed its own government in exile awaiting the liberation of its homeland.

For the past 74 days, Nato and the KLA have been implicit allies, but in much the same way as were the Allies and Russia until the defeat of their common enemy in 1945. Now interests are set to diverge. Nato's terms to President Milosevic provide for wide autonomy for Kosovo. However, they make no mention of the independence demanded by the KLA, which sooner or later is virtually certain to come. Theoretically, the guerrillas are supposed to disarm. But then again, as the British Government needs no reminding, so was the IRA 14 months ago. One violent confrontation on the ground over this Balkan version of decommissioning, and Nato could quickly find itself in the position of the Serbs in the past, of occupier in a hostile land.

Alternatively, Nato could be sucked into civil war between the political class of the ethnic Albanians, led by Ibrahim Rugova, and the KLA. Even sooner than that, Nato will probably face the problem of protecting the province's Serb minority.

Kosovo, it is said, must remain a multi-ethnic society. If so then its Serbs, many of whom had no part in the savageries dispensed by Mr Milosevic's security forces and paramilitary thugs, must also be guarded from reprisals. Were the province now to be divided, with Russian troops protecting predominantly Serb regions in northern and eastern Kosovo, the issue might have been simpler. It may yet come to that. But in theory at least, partition is ruled out, on the grounds that it would merely reward ethnic cleansing. All the more essential, therefore, that Nato moves swiftly to fill a power vacuum.

Next, the rudiments of an infrastructure must be restored before a million displaced Kosovars can start to return. Remember, this is a land laid waste, where no crops have been sown and farm livestock roams like wild animals, whose towns have been devastated and native population scattered as chaff on the four winds. But can this population be persuaded (or even forced) to wait in the fetid camps of Albania and Macedonia, rather than rush back to reclaim what was stolen from them?

Before repatriation starts the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency which will be in charge, wants to carry out an emergency assessment that would take several weeks. But will it be allowed the time?

Along with the economic basics, the very basics of civil society must also be restored. Kosovo will inevitably remain an international protectorate for years, as its local political institutions, wiped out a decade ago by Mr Milosevic, are remade.

But the details of autonomy are mere philosophical musings, compared to the exigencies of the moment. Nato went to war in a vain attempt to stop Europe's most thorough ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people had their documents destroyed by the Serbs. In many towns the most fundamental records - land deeds, population registers and the like - are said to have been systematically destroyed, in a demonic attempt to strip the Albanians of every shred of proof they came from Kosovo at all. Rebuilding, the West well knows, must start from the very bottom.

Ultimately, the West also knows reconstruction involves not just one ruined province, but an entire blighted corner of the continent - not just power stations in Pristina, but the shattered Danube bridges of Serbia which block Europe's biggest international waterway, and the trade and commercial losses incurred by Yugoslavia's neighbours.

The planning, at least, has begun. The scheme bears different titles. The EU talks of a "Stability Pact" for the Balkans (or "south-eastern Europe" as the document less pejoratively refers to the region). Others, inevitably, have dubbed it a new Marshall Plan, while Mr Ahtisaari suggested it be known as the "Schroder Plan", in honour of the German government, which first came up with the idea. Already, too, an agency is emerging to administer it, embracing the world's richest nations, the Balkan countries themselves, as well as the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the IMF. One thing is certain: whatever its name, whoever contributes, it's going to cost a fortune.

Rebuilding Kosovo itself, at a cost of up to $15bn (pounds 9.5bn) is only a start. For if real stability is ever to be brought to the Balkans, the region must acquire the culture of prosperity. Why do inhabitants of rich countries generally not pick fights with each other? Simply because it's not worth it. Greece, safely inside the EU but so fearful of being swept up anew in Balkan mayhem, understands the lesson well. This calculation partly underpinned the behaviour of both Albania and Macedonia during the war. Implicit in their co-operation with the anti-Milosevic alliance was the expectation they would be repaid with closer association with, and one day membership of, the rich countries' clubs - Nato, and above all the EU. The same goes for Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Montenegro. An invitation to a post-Milosevic Serbia is on the table too.

Just possibly, as a result of the Kosovo war, the EU will in future worry a little less about the arcane minutiae of integration and a little more about the problems of the less fortunate lands on its south-eastern borders. The EU will have to foot most of the bill, estimated at anything from $30bn, according to tentative calculations in Brussels, to the massive $100bn put forward by the World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz. For countries like Britain, France and Germany the final bill may run into billions.

Such is the hard road ahead in Kosovo - even if Mr Ahtisaari's pudding tastes good. The war lasted two months. It could take two decades to build a lasting peace.