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A Balkan Consensus: Stop Serbia's March

THE West may find the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina insoluble, but heads of state in surrounding Balkan countries, worried that the conflict may spread, have few doubts about what should have been done and what needs to be done now to bring it to an end.

In interviews with the presidents of the Bulgaria, Albania, and the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Macedonia, a broad consensus emerges on several points:

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* Serbia must be stopped and Bosnian integrity restored. To this end the democratization of Serbia - still ruled by communists - is a primary requisite.

* UN military intervention is inevitable, perhaps of the kind of "war prevention" effort the West should have been prepared to implement immediately after the cold war ended.

* The West, still hesitant and divided, seems ready to accept a peace settlement that rewards aggression. Despite all the covenants to the contrary, the international community is sending a message that violence is an acceptable way of resolving conflicts.

The war in Bosnia is uncomfortably close to these countries, not just geographically, but ethnically, culturally, and historically. Expansion of the conflict is a tangible threat.

The first concern is Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Nearly 2 million Albanians have been robbed of their civil rights ever since Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic tore up Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution giving them autonomy from Belgrade in the late 1980s.

If Mr. Milosevic attempts to "cleanse" Kosovo of Albanians, the Kosovars could be provoked to shift from "passive resistance" to open defiance of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army. That would draw in Albania, Macedonia, and possibly Bulgaria. (Slovenia, to the north of the conflict, would not be directly affected by such an advance.)

Macedonia has an Albanian minority of roughly 400,000, which has thus far lived in accord with the moderate multiparty government. But how long would moderation withstand nationalist pressures to aid beleaguered Albanian compatriots in Kosovo?

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Then there is Macedonia itself, which Belgrade still regards as "south Serbia." It could well be next on Serbia's list, whether or not it openly defends Kosovo. Macedonia has been recognized by the UN but not yet by the United States (though the recent deployment of 300 US troops to monitor Macedonia's border with Serbia is itself a form of recognition - certainly in Serbs' minds).

To the good, Presidents Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia and Zhelyu Zhelev of Bulgaria have tacitly agreed to put aside quarrels used by formerly communist Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia to question the very existence of a Macedonian "nation".

Each is concerned with Balkan stability and with demonstrating (as Mr. Gligorov says) that different ethnic groups can live together. For that reason, Bulgaria recognized Macedonia.

Milosevic has - perhaps only temporarily - dropped trying to lure Macedonia into rump Yugoslavia, the remaining union between Serbia and Montenegro. At a recent, unprecedented meeting with Gligorov, Milosevic acknowledged Macedonia as a separate state, but did not extend formal recognition.

In both Macedonia and Bulgaria, Milosevic remains decidedly suspect. Gligorov and Zhelev say a provocative Serb move against Kosovo or Macedonia would at once involve not only themselves but also Greece and Turkey.

Zhelev also criticizes the West's "total incomprehension" of post-cold-war central and eastern Europe. These Balkan leaders argue the West could have stopped Milosevic before he turned to war, when his intentions were already plainly manifest.

Now, though it may be too late to save Bosnia, strong Western military action is essential to stop the war from spreading. Albania's President Sali Berisha urges NATO to put troops into Kosovo regardless of objections the Serbs might raise.

"Even Milosevic," he says, "is not going to declare war on NATO."

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