Shrinking options

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 1999, 12:00am

WHATEVER else he may think he's doing, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has two main accomplishments for his time in office: he has impoverished his nation and made it smaller.

Unless he quickly shows better strategic sense than displayed so far, he could add to those achievements in the weeks ahead. That's because the Western allies, partly backed by Russia, have finally devised a coherent plan for bringing peace and autonomy to Kosovo, the bloody Yugoslav province which has been fighting to rid itself of Mr Milosevic's repressive regime.

The President must now extend his political vision beyond that of creating a Greater Serbia - the fixation which has caused so much of what used to be Yugoslavia to go its own way. To do that, he must join Allied-sponsored negotiations next Saturday at Rambouillet, France, and agree to let Kosovo have the 'substantial autonomy' these talks are supposed to produce. The terms would leave Kosovo officially a self-governing part of Yugoslavia, but not the independent state its own political hotheads want to create.

Otherwise, Mr Milosevic's next gift to his country will be an even bigger war, one that promises to leave it once again both poorer and smaller. Thoroughly fed up with the Yugoslav President's scheming, the allies have finally made clear they will apply serious force unless talks begin on time, and are concluded a week later.

'We're making it clear he must comply or he'll be bombed,' a US official said.

It's a partial rerun of the previous Bosnian settlement, but with two major differences: Kosovo will get autonomy and not statehood (as Bosnia received), with its long-term status to be reconsidered after three years. And this time Europeans, led by Britain and France, are in charge, though the US may provide a few thousand of the 20,000-man peacekeeping force expected to result from the Rambouillet talks.

Mr Milosevic isn't the only villain. The Kosovans, who are 90 per cent ethnic Albanians and long resentful of the dominant Serbs, have much to do. They must sort out who truly speaks for them, and control the guerillas who prefer to shoot first and think later. And they'll have to drop dreams of combining Kosovo, present-day Albania and part of Macedonia into a Greater Albania. That could bring an even more dangerous effort to re-arrange Balkan borders.