Focus: War in Europe - How to win the peace when the conflict is over

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ast June, looking out across the plains of Kosovo from Northern Albania, I watched the mule trains of weapons being taken across to the KA, and met refugees coming the other way over the mountainous border - individuals and families who had dragged themselves to safety, often along mined tracks. They were fleeing the Serb Army shelling I could see in the ethnic Albanian villages below us.

Nearly one year on, that steady stream of stragglers has become a human tide which threatens to deluge Kosovo's fragile neighbours; and that rumbling conflict has become a war which poses an imminent danger to stability in Europe.

Kosovo is not an island of disturbance. It is the burning fuse which threatens to ignite a wider Balkan conflict. The current campaign to reverse Milosevic's ethnic cleansing and to defeat pan-Serbian nationalism must succeed if we are to build a peaceful Europe, founded on civilised values, for the next century. But we cannot resolve this crisis by allowing pan- Albanian nationalism to prevail either. So the only safe end to this conflict lies not just with narrow peace in Kosovo - but with a new settlement for the whole of the Balkans, acting as a framework for Kosovan independence and for stability in the region.

The Macedonian and Albanian governments, as intensely nervous about Albanian nationalism as they are about Milosevic's aggression, need to know that we have a long-term plan, and that in the short term we will give them support - a message which I take to them today directly from the Prime Minister.

Macedonia is a new nation, very unstable, with its own fragile ethnic mix to contend with. Albania suffers from grinding poverty. It has not yet recovered from the violent paroxysms of the early 1990s nor from decades of repression under Hoxha, and the rule of law has only a weak grip in much of its gun-drenched territory.

Bulgaria and Romania, both also unstable, seek a long term future within Nato, while Greece and Turkey, with ties of religion and ethnicity to both sides in Kosovo, look nervously on.

And what of Serbia? Milosevic has, rightly, become a pariah amongst European leaders. During the Bosnia crisis the West made the mistake of seeing him as part of the solution, when he was the source of the problem. When Kosovo falls away from the Federal Yugoslavia, Milosevic will almost certainly have to fall from office - he will then have lost Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and his presidency will be over.

But the Serb nation and the Serbian state must not remain pariahs after he has gone, and one of our key aims for the long term should be to welcome a democratic Serbia back into the European family. This means giving the Serbs our help in reconstruction - so far we have offered them only punishment, not reward.

Bismarck said that the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. In fact, we know that this extraordinary region has often provided the trigger for wider conflict and therefore it demands our attention.

The Balkan states have enjoyed peace chiefly when there has been an overarching power structure to bring stability: the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburgs, Communism. The fault line between Europe and Asia has moved backwards and forwards across the region throughout its history - there were Turks at the gates of Vienna during Mozart's lifetime.

But Europe is now bringing the overarching structure which could usher in a period of peace. If the European Union fulfils its promise and becomes a "great power" it will have "great responsibilities" to ensure peace along its borders and in its marches.

This is an uncomfortable truth for the western Europeans and indeed for the Russians, for whom the Balkans have been a sphere of influence during most of the 20th century. We need to respect Russian sensitivities and to be patient - not least because we will need Moscow to help us find a long-term settlement when we at last emerge from the Kosovo crisis. This will involve revisiting the Dayton accord, which explicitly and fatally excluded the Kosovo question. And it will also involve a huge programme of reconstruction and economic regeneration.

To paraphrase Churchill, this is not yet the endgame, but it might well be the end of the beginning-game. And we have to focus on what sort of peace we are working towards now, as the conflict in Kosovo enters an even more intense phase.

n Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the iberal Democrats, begins a five-day visit to Albania and Macedonia today