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Balky in the Balkans

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's recent tour of the Balkans highlighted unresolved problems in that turbulent corner of Europe. And the months just ahead - from Bosnia's municipal elections this fall to the planned pullout of US troops next June - are critical.

Secretary Albright wanted to firmly put down a marker - that the US stands by the 1995 Dayton accords and demands compliance with such provisions as apprehension of war criminals and return of refugees to their homes.

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The question, as ever, is whether anyone is listening. Albright went to the Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian capitals. She told Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, the leaders of Croatia and Serbia, what was expected and left no doubt US aid would depend on cooperation. In the case of Tudjman, at least, she got a tangible response. He agreed to reopen the bridge connecting Croatia (and the rest of Europe) to the key Serb-held town of Brcko in Bosnia - key because it's on the thread of land joining the two lobes of the Serb part of Bosnia.

Theoretically, Brcko will now be more open to the flow of commerce and people, and perhaps to the return of displaced residents (mainly Muslim). That could contribute to a reasonably fair municipal vote come fall. But the Bosnian Serbs who run the town have made it clear they're not about to allow any Muslims back in.

Nor are fervent Croatian nationalists in the Krajina region of Croatia about to allow any Serb refugees back into homes they left behind there. The sad fact is, the ethnic cleansers are still very much in business, intent on consolidating their hold on territory.

How can the US and its allies in the Dayton process help counter the slide toward separation, partition, and perpetuated conflict? Albright is right to reaffirm the importance of dealing with war crimes and allowing refugees to return. Those items are integral to the peace agreement, but they generate more rhetoric than action. More immediate action can be taken in other areas:

* Free up international aid so Bosnians on all sides can see some economic benefit and hope from peace. Too many young, unemployed men are hanging around with nothing to do but wait for war to resume.

* Accelerate efforts to build a civic structure that can start providing normal government services. Fall municipal elections could be a turning point.

* Make sure peacekeeping forces are adequate to guarantee orderly voting, free of violence.

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* Finally, forget about rigid withdrawal deadlines for NATO-led forces. Follow-up forces will be needed far beyond the US deadline next year.

The strong words voiced by Albright and others in Washington and in Europe's capitals will fall on tin ears in the Balkans unless they're backed by strong action. If, as President Clinton is fond of saying, steps like the expansion of NATO presage a new era for Europe and the world, Bosnia and its neighbors remain a crucial first test of that vision.

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