Colin Powell to the Balkans: Read My Lips, No New Borders

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Secretary of State Colin Powell greets Macedonian president Boris Trajkovskiin

As a sometime student of military history, General Colin Powell knows better than to go blustering into the Balkans. Indeed, the message coming out of the round of meetings the new secretary of state has held with some of the troubled region's chieftains in recent days is one of continuity, stability and caution. Despite a Bush campaign promise to withdraw U.S. troops from peacekeeping duties in the region as soon as possible, Powell emphasized Thursday that the U.S. would not "cut and run" from the region, and that no troop reductions would occur without careful consultation with Washington's European allies. In other words, not any time soon.

Powell met Friday with Yugoslavian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and with Kosovar Albanian leaders — and he had bad news for both, although the lion's share may have been for the Albanians. The message to Belgrade was simple: Getting much-needed U.S. economic aid will depend on Yugoslavia's sending Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague for a war crimes trial. But even though President Vojislav Kostunica last week rebuffed the demand by Hague prosecutor Carla del Ponte that Milosevic be handed over, Belgrade may be moving steadily closer to complying with the Western demand. Milosevic Thursday has been placed under de facto house arrest, and Djindjic said after meeting Powell that the deposed strongman would be put on trial in Belgrade within two weeks. Of course the charges in Belgrade may be based on corruption and violation of his country's constitution rather than war crimes, but Djindjic also promised to begin cooperating with the Hague Tribunal in the Milosevic case "in a few months."

Got to admit it's getting better

The movement toward a settlement on the Milosevic issue signals the steadily improving relations between Washington and Belgrade following the strongman's ouster. Yugoslavia's new leaders have won praise from Washington for their restraint in dealing with a new upsurge of cross-border violence from Kosovo, as Albanian separatists seek to carve off a piece of Serbia that falls within the demilitarized zone created at the end of the Kosovo conflict. The scenario feared by Kosovo's more determined nationalists appears to be coming into play now: The replacement of Milosevic by a moderate and democratic regime in Belgrade may have put the kibosh on moves toward independence for Kosovo.

The strongest message to Kosovar leaders may have been an oblique one: Powell on Thursday refused to see Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic, and administration sources told the New York Times that the reason was to discourage thoughts of independence for Yugoslavia's last non-Serb republic. The reason was that Washington wants to avoid sending a message that might encourage moves toward independence for Kosovo. The officials briefing the Times echoed the European concern of avoiding any further redrawing of borders in the region, for fear of sparking a new round of tribal wars. Powell was also expected to urge the Kosovar leaders to do more to rein in nationalist elements clashing with NATO troops in the divided town of Mitrovice, and those involved in secessionist guerrilla actions inside Serbia.

Powell's cautious approach appears designed to manage Balkan conflict with an emphasis on stability, rather than to attempt a grand resolution of centuries-old nationalist conflicts. And while that may mean the 10,000 U.S. troops deployed in the region don't come home in a hurry, it may be a recipe for avoiding new wars that might draw them back in.