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    A Times Editorial

    Finishing the job

    NATO's mission in the Balkans won't be complete until ethnic Albanian guerrillas based in Kosovo no longer pose a threat to the region's stability.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


    The political and military landscape in the Balkans has changed dramatically in the two years since NATO forces intervened to end Slobodan Milosevic's brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in the province of Kosovo. Milosevic's regime was toppled in a peaceful revolt, and Yugoslavia's new government generally has lived up to its promises to enact democratic reforms and reduce tensions in Kosovo and with neighboring governments. Meanwhile, though, militant ethnic Albanians -- who claim to represent the very people NATO intervened to defend -- are destabilizing the region with attacks against Serbs within Kosovo and in neighboring Macedonia.

    The political landscape has changed dramatically in Washington, too. President Bush inherited our commitment in the Balkans from the Clinton administration, and the new president and some of his top advisers have made incautious comments that suggested they were looking for a hasty retreat from our military involvement in the region.

    The Bush administration's words and actions in the past few days have been more encouraging. Any apparent policy differences with our NATO allies have been publicly resolved. Just as important, Albanian fighters have been sent a strong message that NATO will no longer tolerate a guerrilla campaign that amounts to small-scale ethnic cleansing in reverse. Serb troops have won NATO's permission to re-enter a crucial strip of the buffer zone established along Serbia's border with Kosovo and Macedonia. NATO also persuaded the Albanian guerrillas to agree to a one-week cease fire.

    NATO should now work to extend the cease fire and give more moderate ethnic Albanians a chance to exert political power. In Macedonia, leaders of the significant Albanian minority already have distanced themselves from the militants hoping to carve out a new greater Albania in the region. It is important for political leaders in Kosovo to renounce the guerrillas using the province as a staging ground for attacks on Serb troops and civilians. NATO did not enter this conflict to see one brand of ethnic intolerance replaced with another.

    There is a risk that U.S. troops and their NATO allies will soon find themselves in greater danger if Albanian guerrillas do not voluntarily end their campaign of violence. American casualties in the region would present a new test for the Bush administration. The United States should not be drawn into an open-ended commitment in the Balkans that could lead to an escalation of our military risk. However, the United States and NATO should finish the job they began two years ago. NATO's intervention led to the collapse of a murderous government in Belgrade. It also should produce a civil society committed to multiethnic tolerance in Kosovo.

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