Albanian separatists have been attacking policemen in the Serbian province of Kosovo for years, though only recently has the conflict escalated to the point where Slobodan Milosevic felt compelled to respond with a show of force. Not surprisingly, Milosevic’s action was met by the familiar media barrage against the cruelty of “the Serbs” and bellicose statements by Madeleine Albright, who threatened Serbia with new sanctions.

The current American strategy is to force Vlilosevic into elevating Kosovo to the status of a constituent federal republic in the rump Yugoslav federation, which has been reduced to Serbia and Montenegro. The province would thus be detached from Serbia, of which it is the oldest and most treasured part: Serbian medieval kings left magnificent monasteries and castles as evidence that this was indeed the cradle not only of the Serbian state but of its neo-Byzantine culture.

This “federal strategy” is the untold reason for the State Department’s insistence that the problem of Kosovo be resolved “within Yugoslavia,” with no mention of Serbia. The rationale is the spurious claim that, although always a part of Serbia, Kosovo was also represented at the federal level under Tito’s communist constitution of 1974. Why a dead red dictator’s arrangements—never freely negotiated, or voted upon by the people concerned—should be accepted as inviolable principles a quarter of a century later is left unexplained.

After Kosovo becomes a federal republic, the Croatian/Bosnian scenario for secession would be duly applied: the assembly in Pristina will call a referendum on independence, with the result a foregone conclusion. The proceedings will be eagerly ratified by the assorted worthies from the “international community,” and presto!—another slice will be cut from the Serbian salami, with the facade of legality maintained by the powers-that-be inside the Beltway. If the Serbs try to resist, they will be branded, yet again, as “aggressors” against a new U.N. member. A greater Albania will come into being without a single editorial writer ever using the term, let alone considering its implications.

The Kosovo conflict has been brewing for some time. Down to the end of the 19th century, the region was overwhelmingly Serbian, although Turkish authorities had encouraged Albanian immigration—and violence—as a threat against an independent Serbia. Even down to World War II, the Serbs were in the majority, but Tito encouraged Albanian nationalism as part of his divide-and-rule strategy against the Serbs.

The Albanians’ savage and unremitting abuse of the Serb minority attracted the attention of Slobodan Milosevic, who went to Kosovo and promised the Serbs, “No one will ever beat you again.” It was this stance that marked the beginning of Milosevic’s reputation as a Serb nationalist.

In the current conflict, however, Milosevic appears to be on board the American ship. Whatever he does, he cannot risk offending the “only remaining superpower.” Milosevic depends on U.S. backing to preserve his power in the remnant of Serbia. As events unfold, he will present defeat to his long-suffering people as a victory, because the leader of the Kosovo Albanians, Ibrahim Rugova, will temporarily muzzle his uncompromising demand for full independence in favor of the federal status within Yugoslavia. But a few months later, when Rugova follows the example of Tudjman in 1991 and Izetbegovic in 1992, Milosevic’s acceptance of the fait accompli will be justified by foreign pressure. He and Albright need each other.

This clever ploy made in Foggy Bottom may cause a destabilizing chain reaction throughout the Balkans. Its main victim will be the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, where the restive Albanian minority comprises a third of the total population (as opposed to only one-fifth in Serbia). Oddly enough, the United States supports Skopje’s policy of centralization, and does not object to the refusal of the government of Kiro Gligorov to grant autonomous status to its Albanians. But by encouraging Albanians next door in Serbia to strive for full autonomy, and paving the way for independence, the United States will have unleashed a revolution of rising expectations among Macedonia’s Albanians that will be impossible to contain.

Quite apart from practical policy considerations, American encouragement of Albanian intransigence in Serbia is flawed in principle. If the Albanians are allowed full autonomy leading to secession on grounds of their numbers (85 percent in Kosovo), will the same apply when the Latinos in New Mexico or Texas eventually outnumber their Anglo neighbors and start demanding full autonomy, or even secession?

If the principle of full territorial autonomy for minorities is imposed on Serbia, will it not be demanded by the Hungarians in Rumania (more numerous than Serbia’s Albanians), the Russians in the Ukraine, or the Kurds in Turkey? And finally, if action by Serbian police against armed terrorists is condemned by Washington in the name of human rights and moral principles, what will Washington’s response be when the next Kurdish village is razed by the Turkish army or the next Palestinian terrorist’s home is blown up by the Israeli Defense Force?