If you were Slobodan Milosevic, here's what you'd be thinking

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DEJA VU all over again? So it would seem, six years after the Bosnian conflict began. Once more, history is repeating itself as tragedy, as Serbian security forces seal off and "cleanse" tracts of Balkan countryside.

Slobodan Milosevic, the last despot of old Eastern Europe, purveyor of his own patented blend of failed socialism and rancid nationalism, is again playing at war, this time in Serbia's mostly Albanian province of Kosovo.

Entire villages are laid waste, hundreds may be dead, while tens of thousands of refugees are reported fleeing for sanctuary in neighbouring Albania proper. As in 1992, the West wrings its hands and threatens sanctions, but seems no more willing than before to risk blood and treasure to put an end to the rampage.

Such is the former Yugoslavia, as viewed by the world - a place incapable of change, where mediaeval hatreds invariably triumph over new millennium reason. But stop for an instant, pretend you are Mr Milosevic and consider the former Yugoslavia from the vantage point of Belgrade. The panorama is one of unrelieved disaster.

The vision of the Greater Serbia you dangled before your people is a mockery. You are virtually isolated within Europe, your economy is a wreck. Thanks to the conflicts you helped unleash, Slovenia has gone, Croatia has gone, Macedonia has gone and Bosnia has gone.

Apart from Serbia itself, only tiny Montenegro remains of the six republics of Tito's federation - and last weekend you watched as your man in Montenegro was roundly defeated by a reformer, Milo Djukanovic, who says he will carry his market-oriented economic policies, and his strategy of rapprochement with Europe, into Serbia itself. And this time you cannot complain the elections were rigged. On the streets below you the mutterings are starting: why not a reformer here as well?

And contrary to appearances, this time Nato will be no pushover. True, in Brussels yesterday, the alliance was taking its time. But, and you know it, Nato has learnt the lesson of Bosnia - that words unbacked by deeds, the bluff which you can call, only guarantee disaster. And this time the stakes are higher.

Bosnia was ghastly, but there was never great danger of the fighting spreading much further afield. This time it just could: to Albania, obviously, and to Macedonia where a quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, and thence to Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. An unlikely scenario, admittedly, but another reason why Nato will act to contain the conflict and - as a last resort - intervene to stop it.

Yet the nationalist passions you have stoked propel you forward.

Your best bet, you have calculated, is this early, large scale and ruthless strike against the insurgents. That way perhaps you will able to restart "negotiations" over the future of the province from a position of strength.

But will your people stand for much more of this, especially if the Western allies cut off the outside investment that was the best chance of hauling your economy out of the doldrums? Sooner or later they will find out that the Western powers do not advocate independence for Kosovo along Bosnian lines; merely a return of the special status the province enjoyed until you removed it in 1989. Small wonder then, if the Belgrade newspaper report is true, you've just had to sack 100 Belgrade policemen who refused service in Kosovo. Nationalism no longer blinds all eyes.

You are, in short, in a sorry pass, engaged in a war of no profit, with the progressive Mr Djukanovic on your doorstep. None of which portends your immediate demise. You are a tactician and survivor of great cunning, ready to do the worst to achieve your ends.

But history's wheel is coming full circle. In Kosovo, you fired the starter's gun for this round of Balkan wars. In Kosovo they will end - and, perhaps, your own malign political career as well.

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