Standing firm to end atrocities in Kosovo NATO ultimatum: Serb boss Milosevic yields to force and credible threats, never to mere bluster.

October 13, 1998

SLOBODAN Milosevic knows when NATO and the United States are bluffing but sometimes fails to recognize when they are not.

The bombing of Serbia in 1995, which brought him to the negotiating table in Ohio, halted war and genocide in Bosnia. Had it come three years earlier, hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs might be alive.

Kosovo -- a formerly autonomous province of Serbia that is home to ethnic Albanians -- was the most dangerous turf in the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was where the atrocities would be worst and where each side would find foreign patrons, divided along the historic fault line between Islam and Christendom.

Unlike Bosnia, Kosovo is indisputably part of sovereign Yugoslavia. Were it not for massive human rights violations, this would be an internal matter. And had Mr. Milosevic not suppressed Kosovo's autonomy nine years ago, the people there might not be secessionists today.

International disapproval hardly bothers the former Communist boss of Serbia, now president of federal Yugoslavia. He thrives on Serbia's ostracism and is using the current threat to crack down on dissent and information.

In this caldron, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must make no threat it fails to keep. It must show that it means to prevent wars and genocide in Europe. That said, the alliance's vision of Balkan geopolitics is closer to Mr. Milosevic than to the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is both separatist and terrorist. Any action against Serbia would not be intended to demolish it.

NATO takes no one by surprise. The diplomatic dance preceding the requisite 16-member unanimity and the lumbering buildup were meant to be seen.

Mr. Milosevic and better-informed Serbs know what would be in store: bombing of military targets in Serbia, with pauses between escalations to allow for compliance.

What NATO does require is that Mr. Milosevic quit responding to insurrection with slaughter of the civilian population. The goal is not to bomb Serbia but to induce the ruler to show restraint toward his fellow citizens and to re-establish an autonomy with which all can live.

Even as mass graves from his 1992 genocide in Bosnia are being uncovered, Mr. Milosevic must be intimidated from committing more. When he truly believes the bombs are coming, he stops.

The intense negotiating effort of Richard C. Holbrooke on behalf of the United States and NATO was designed to make him believe. Any bombing would be an admission of failure.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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