The Nando times - Balkan battles have familiar cast

By ROBERT H. REID

VIENNA, Austria (November 28, 1999 12:08 a.m. EST) - Reporting Serbia's campaign against rebellious Kosovo Albanians, a foreign observer described "houses and whole villages ... reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred" amid "incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality."

The words come from a 1914 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about a successful Serb crackdown in Kosovo. They could just have easily been written months ago during Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on Albanian separatists, which ended after the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

In the Balkans, the 20th century is ending as it began - with Western powers wrestling with what was once described as "the Eastern Question": how to balance the interests of rival peoples without destabilizing a key region that links Europe with the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Then and now, the motivation for international involvement in the Balkans was the same - fear that the disintegration of empire would unleash ethnic bloodletting and trigger a land grab by other powers.

The first effort to solve the Balkan crisis ended in a disaster from which the world has not fully recovered. The 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, touched off World War I.

That conflict brought down continental Europe's four great empires - Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman - and set the stage for the horrors of the 20th century: the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, World War II, the Holocaust, nuclear terror, the Cold War.

As the 20th century ends, about 80,000 foreign soldiers - Americans, Russians, Germans, French, British and others - are in the Balkans, including Sarajevo, trying to keep a peace that many in the region fear would collapse if the troops left.

Western interest in the region began late in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the area for five centuries, began to fall apart, spurred by the aspirations for independence of Balkan peoples.

Fearing Russia would fill the vacuum and control land routes to the Middle East, major western European powers intervened, seeking to control territory and redraw national boundaries to seek formula for stability.

A century later, as the Soviet empire was unraveling, those same Balkan peoples - Kosovo Albanians, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes and others - again agitated for independence, this time from a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia re-estalbished at the end of World War II. In turn, the Serbs of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo took up arms.

International involvement in the Balkans was no more popular a century ago than it is now. Germany's "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck, once dismissed the Balkans as "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier."

When Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker told the Europeans that Washington "ain't got a dog in this fight," believing the region posed no strategic threat to American interests.

Nearly a decade and several bloody dog fights later, American troops are locked into peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo with no end in sight and U.S. jets and missiles played the dominant role in NATO's 78-day bombardment of Yugoslavia - Europe's last armed conflict of the century.

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