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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Milosevic Accepted Serbia's Destruction

KOSOVO POLJE, Yugoslavia -- On the eve of the NATO bombing of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic turned to the U.S. envoys facing him. "You are a superpower,'' he said. "You can do what you want. If you want to say Sunday is Wednesday, you can. It is all up to you.''

Christopher Hill, one of the officials present, was struck by the words, because they seemed to capture the fatalism of the Yugoslav president as he led his people to the abyss. "It was a form of the old Serbian megalomania,'' Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, observed, "the one that says, You can destroy us, but we will be right.'"

Three months and tens of thousands of NATO sorties later, that destruction is evident in the ragged central Kosovo town of Kosovo Polje where the bleary Serbian faces speak of a sea change in the Balkan equation: A decade after Milosevic envisioned it here in a speech that whipped up Serbian nationalism and helped cement his power, Greater Serbia is dead.

In its place, a new group of largely ethnically homogeneous states has emerged, with the help of Milosevic's consistent brutality from Vukovar in Croatia through the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to Kosovo towns like Djakovica and Pec.

Milosevic has been the midwife of his enemies' ascendancy. Over the past decade, his tactics of mass killing and eviction of civilians have helped forge a separate Croatia, a new Bosnian Moslem identity and now an embryonic Albanian nation state in Kosovo. Serbia, meanwhile, one of the first Balkan nation states to emerge in the 19th century, is still casting around for stable borders, unable to resolve the dilemma of how to unite Serbs in one country now that the old Yugoslavia is dead.

Now, the rise of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo and the Balkans as a whole has prompted concern in the West. A Greater Albania f embracing Albania, Kosovo and the western part of Macedonia, whose population is heavily Albanian f is the avowed goal of some Kosovo Liberation Army fighters.

"We spent the 1990s worrying about a Greater Serbia,'' Hill said. "That's finished. We are going to spend time well into the next century worrying about a Greater Albania.''

Of course, Greater Serbia was always a project pursued with ruthless violence. There is no evidence that Albania has similar will or might. But the buoyant ascendancy of the Kosovo Liberation Army is unmistakable, and some of the weapons it wields come from the military arsenals of Albania that were looted during the country's descent into economic mayhem in spring 1997.

Unlike Bosnia, Kosovo has no model of a multiethnic state, and Pristina has none of the cultural openness that once marked Sarajevo. The remnants of peaceful coexistence here were snuffed out in the last two decades: first, the Albanian majority wielded power, then Milosevic stripped away that broad autonomy, and his police ruled Kosovo harshly for the last decade.

This history will complicate and continually undermine one of NATO's aims in Kosovo: allowing Serbs and Albanians to live together in peace.

In some ways, the Albanian question is the Serbian question in a broken mirror. Like the Serbs, the Albanians are a people scattered in several countries, harboring a deep sense of historical injustice, marked by a pattern of disunity, still in search of stable contours for their nation and stable institutions to govern it.

Throughout Kosovo, the Albanians' red flag with a double-headed black eagle flutters from smashed factories and city halls, hoisted there by the young militiamen of the Kosovo Liberation Army in their camouflage fatigues.

After long and harsh Serbian domination, their joy is the joy of the liberated. From time to time, a NATO patrol passes beneath the flags.

The scene could scarcely be more fantastically remote from the nationalist vision offered by Milosevic a decade ago when he came to Kosovo's Field of Blackbirds f scene of a Serbian defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1389 f to proclaim a glorious Serbian future, one in which the Serbs f no longer "humiliated'' f would do battle for their "state, national and spiritual integrity.''

The battle has been lost. Defeat is now real, bitter as ash. "Milosevic has used us and betrayed us,'' said Radovan Delibasic, a Serb from Kosovo Polje. "He came here 10 years ago to inspire us with our history in Kosovo. But we have learned that you cannot live from history. Americans have no history, and they live wonderfully well.''