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With NATO Strikes, U.S. Hopes to Shore Up Balkan Dominoes

Kosovo: After a decade of escalating violence by Yugoslav forces, air attacks are seen as long overdue.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — President Clinton's prediction that failure to act against Serbian atrocities in Kosovo might spur a domino-like spread of war throughout the Balkans has engendered hope among those with a front-row seat on the conflict that the West has finally gotten the message.

After a decade of escalating violence by Yugoslav forces, from Slovenia to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO bombardment to halt the killings and purges in Kosovo is seen in the region as long-overdue intervention to halt a cycle of violence that has killed 300,000 and left millions homeless.

Ever since World War I was triggered by a Serbian nationalist's assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand here in 1914, historians and analysts have regarded the Balkans as a tinderbox that can ignite an ever-widening conflagration.

They acknowledge the risk that the current conflict could further destabilize the region but argue that the greater risk is in doing nothing.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's assault on Serb-led Yugoslavia for executions and "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo Albanians is its first preemptive strike to prevent a spillover of conflicts to the south and a rekindling of the wars that ravaged former Yugoslav republics to the north.

Likening Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin for his ruthlessness, and to Adolf Hitler for destroying his country with a campaign fueled by aggression and hatred, a top international official in Bosnia applauded NATO's action as the West's only chance to defeat the mastermind of the Balkan conflicts.

"As long as we don't have a democratic government in Belgrade, we will have instability in the Balkans," said Senior Deputy High Representative Jacques Klein, arguing that NATO bombardment is the best hope for forcing a change of government in the Yugoslav capital. But he noted that a successful intervention to halt the spread of violence may have to involve the introduction of ground troops.

U.S. resistance to sending in ground forces is rooted in the fear of suffering greater casualties than from the relatively more secure air campaign. The capture of three U.S. soldiers near the Yugoslav border with Macedonia could inflate those fears, but Klein predicted the plight of the U.S. troops will rally public support for NATO intervention.

Historians who have watched Milosevic whip up ethnic frenzy throughout the former Yugoslav federation since he rose to power in the late 1980s, attribute the success of his backers to an inflated mythology of Serbia as an indomitable warrior nation.

That view was nurtured by centuries of sporadic rebellions against Ottoman Turkish rule and resistance to Nazi German troops in World War II.

But historians question the modern-day fighting prowess of the region's troops.

"The only time they are brave in battle is when they are bombarding women and children, as they did in Sarajevo," said Balkan scholar James Lyon, an analyst here with the International Crisis Group. "They are notorious for cutting and running whenever faced with any measure of force."

Lyon, who completed his doctoral work at UCLA, shares the opinion of other analysts that the toppling of ethnic dominoes can be stopped only if NATO remains determined.

Several Balkan states and enclaves are still at risk of being drawn into conflict, which analysts see as all the more reason for NATO to make sure it finishes the job it has begun.

Montenegro, the smaller of the two remaining Yugoslav republics, has refused to respect Serbia's declaration of war against NATO, risking retaliation by Belgrade or suppression of its more moderate leaders.

Macedonia, with its large ethnic Albanian minority, also could be destabilized if refugees pouring in from Kosovo unite with radicals seeking to claim land from neighboring republics to create an expanded Albanian state.

According to that scenario, any such reduction of Macedonia could tempt Greek or Bulgarian nationalists to seize what is left. And Greek involvement could get rival Turkey involved, setting up a conflict between two NATO members.

Further, Janusz Bugajski, director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, worries that, if the Kosovo Liberation Army is driven out of Kosovo, the guerrillas might escape to Albania and Macedonia and wage cross-border actions against Yugoslavia. This could draw both neighboring countries into the armed conflict.

Clinton raised the specter of unrest spreading throughout the Balkans during his televised address on the first day of the NATO bombardment, warning: "All around Kosovo there are other small countries struggling with their own economic and political challenges, countries that could be overwhelmed by a large new wave of refugees from Kosovo."

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