The puppet-master of the Balkans is running out of strings to pull

If the West wants peace in regions of ethnic hatred, it must be prepared to intervene, says Rupert Cornwell
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ONE DICTATOR is back in his box - at least for a week or two. A couple of weeks ago, Robin Cook was reading the riot act to Saddam Hussein. Now he is in Belgrade doing the same to Slobodan Milosevic, connoisseur of fine Scotch whisky, President of what is left of the former Yugoslavia, and perennial Balkan troublemaker.

The trouble this time is in the province of Kosovo, part of Serbia but populated for 90 per cent by ethnic Albanians. At which point acute Balkan fatigue among readers may already have set in. And you may be forgiven that reaction. Wolf has been cried time and again over Kosovo; yet when almost every other possible Balkan conflict has happened, this one has not. But Kosovo contains the seeds of a disaster greater even than Bosnia. For despite its barbarity, and the horrors of "ethnic cleansing", the Bosnian conflict was confined within the former Yugoslavia; any co-incidence between Sarajevo 1992 and Sarajevo 1914 was purely geographical.

But today's undeclared war in the province is a different proposition. The first link in the Doomsday chain is obviously neighbouring Albania (much of it in a state of quasi-anarchy). Next door lies Macedonia, with its large and vociferous Albanian minority. But trouble in Macedonia could well drag Greece, hypersensitive to events in that country, into the fray ... and if Greece, then why not Turkey? None of this has happened yet - but the Kosovo crisis is veering out of control.

Like most disputes in the Balkans, the origins of this one go back centuries; but its current version stems from the refusal of Mr Milosevic to give back the autonomy he stripped from the province ten years ago. In 1997 the conflict was radicalised by the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, committed to full independence. Inevitably, the emergence of this force undermined Ibrahim Rugova, the political leader of the Kosovo Albanians, who had largely managed to keep the dispute non-violent. Then last weekend, Serb security forces killed at least 20 Albanians. The international community clings publicly to the notion that a deal for autonomy short of independence can be struck. But after the latest events, most Albanians simply want out. The powder-keg is primed. Student demonstrations next week could provide the match.

And yet however perverse it may sound, there is hope to be extracted from this mess, even as Mr Cook beats the path to Belgrade well worn by countless other Western emissaries whom President Milosevic has received and then ignored. For one thing, in contrast to their sabre-rattling over the Aegean and Cyprus, Greece and Turkey are acting with the utmost care. And surely, surely, the West has learnt from its mistakes in Bosnia, where but for its pusillanimity towards the Bosnian Serbs, the war might have been stopped in 1992 or 1993.

Expect no miracles from the EU, in whose name Mr Cook will be speaking. We have had the standard condemnations of Serbian violence, denunciations of "terrorism" and pious exhortations to restraint and dialogue. We had much of that in Bosnia too. Expect none either from the United Nations, if the formulaic pleadings of Mrs Mary Robinson, its High Commissioner for Human Rights, are anything to go by. But then again, as Bosnia proved ad nauseam, you cannot ask the UN to keep the peace if there is no peace to keep. Which leaves Nato, or more exactly, the US. It was air strikes in 1995 which gave teeth to Richard Holbrooke's negotiating mission and helped drive Mr Milosevic to sign the Dayton peace accords, and it is a Nato stabilisation force which is today keeping the peace in Bosnia.

So why not a similar approach over Kosovo, if the Serbs persist in their violent denial of rights to the Albanian majority? If that causes Mr Milosevic to turn against the West, much better that he vent his spleen against us who have the means and the might to resist, rather than against the desperate Kosovo Albanians who have tasted his poison often enough already. As Bosnia also proved, if the West really desires peace in places where ethnic hatred runs fierce and deep, it must be there to provide it. And acting as enforcer in Kosovo would be far better employment for British and American forces than sitting in the Gulf, threatening Iraq with attacks that would only inflate the prestige of Saddam Hussein and destabilise that region further. In the case of Mr Milosevic the opposite is true.

For, whatever happens next, the puppet master of the Balkans is running out of strings to pull. His dream of transforming Yugoslavia into a "Greater Serbia" has crumbled. True, Dayton did create a separate Bosnian Serb statelet. But apart from Serbia itself, the only other component of the former Yugoslavia which remains is Montenegro, run by a relative moderate whose election Milosevic tried to prevent. And now Kosovo, the holiest name in Serbian history, is slipping from his grasp.

If Milosevic restores to the province its former autonomy, he will be pilloried by Serbian nationalists. If he tries to complete the crack-down he has started, insisting that Kosovo is an "internal affair" in which the West has no right to meddle, the sanctions which are crippling the rump-Yugoslavia he rules will certainly not be loosened. Quite possibly they will be tightened, which can only strengthen the cause of those among his countrymen who want to rejoin the world. Or there could be a very direct response from Nato.

Mr Milosevic of course is the craftiest of customers, capable of turning the bitter foes of yesterday into today's tacit allies of convenience. He has held on to power with a brutal grip. But Kosovo just might be his last stand. The Balkan crisis, it could be said, began there, when the Ottoman Turks destroyed the Serbian Knights in 1389. Six centuries later, it was Kosovo where Milosevic made his rabidly nationalist speech which unleashed the latest chapter of the crisis. And it is Kosovo where, this decade of Balkan mayhem could, and should end.