Yugoslavia’s contempt for international opinion has been made perfectly clear over the last week. Last week, Serbian police, backed by the heavy weapons of the Yugoslav Army, allegedly massacred 45 civilians in the Kosovo village of Racak. When news of the attack leaked out, Yugoslav authorities were defiant, charging that the victims were Kosovo Liberation Army terrorists and then it slammed the door on international scrutiny of its actions. Another round of fighting in the village has already begun. As Kosovo is about to explode, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is once again playing a game of chicken with the West, apparently indifferent to the consequences of his actions.

Eyewitness accounts and the evidence from the attack on Racak put the lie to official Yugoslav claims that the individuals killed were KLA rebels. According to the survivors, men and women in the village were separated and then the men were shot in cold blood. Reportedly, the wounds on the bodies of the victims corroborate their story of murder. In the following days, as Serb officials traveled to investigate the incident, the attacks have been renewed. Unarmed international monitors have been forced to withdraw under the Serb assault.

When Mr. William Walker, the head of the international monitoring group set up to monitor the ceasefire established in Kosovo last October, accused the Serbs of mass murder, the government in Belgrade declared him persona non grata and gave him 48 hours to leave the country.(The deadline has since been extended another day.) Two NATO generals sent to warn Mr. Milosevic of the risks he was courting were left cooling their heels for a day because of his busy schedule. And to make sure that no organization was spared a snub, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal was refused entry into the country to investigate the attack.

Mr. Milosevic’s strategy is simple. On the one hand, he is convinced that the international community will not take strong action against him. He is betting that the West, divided and distracted by Iraq and the Clinton impeachment drama, does not have the stomach to intervene in Kosovo. He is also gambling that the presence of the monitors and the thousands of refugees that have fled to the hills will keep NATO from striking against the Serb forces.

It is a smart gamble. Despite NATO’s tough talk, it would take days, if not weeks, to evacuate the 800 international monitors. Mr. Milosevic also knows that NATO currently has only 80 aircraft available for airstrikes, less than one-third of the number that planners need for successful operations against the Serbs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Walker and the rest of the international community are vilified for being anti-Serb. That strengthens Mr. Milosevic’s nationalist credentials and prepares the country for any hardships that might result from his actions. If NATO hits or if sanctions are tightened, they will be the result of “anti-Serb prejudice” and not the atrocities. There are signs that Mr. Milosevic is facing more challenges at home. An army general dismissed last year after disagreeing with the president has challenged the move; dissent is on the rise. An external threat to Yugoslavia gives Mr. Milosevic the excuse he needs to crack down at home.

The question for the world is, what price Mr. Milosevic’s iron grip at home? There are growing fears that events in Kosovo will spill over across borders and draw in Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. By all reports, the KLA is acquiring more men and materiel. It is preparing for a long fight and its leadership seems willing to pay a high price in civilian casualties.

The autonomy and eventual independence that the Kosovars want is a nonstarter as far as the president is concerned. In fact, apart from the Kosovars, no one wants that. But some form of self-government can be achieved if tensions are dampened long enough for negotiations to continue. That means the monitors are critical.

The key is convincing Mr. Milosevic that an international presence in the region is in his own best interest. That should not be too hard to do. The monitoring force last week brokered the release of eight Yugoslav Army soldiers held hostage by the KLA. It has also been willing to help the thousands of Kosovars that have been forced to flee their homes during the fighting, a burden that the nominal Serb government in the area is too happy to pass on. Then, there is the agreement Mr. Milosevic signed last year that averted NATO airstrikes. If a ceasefire is not enough to tempt Mr. Milosevic, there is always NATO’s threat of action. It is a sad alternative, but one that Mr. Milosevic seems to understand best.

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