A Page Turns in Europe's History Just as Collapse of Berlin Wall Altered the East, Fight over Kosovo

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NATO's 11-week war against Yugoslavia may be the most important geopolitical event to occur in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In a way, the victory over Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic represents the second act of the drama that began when Germans attacked their concrete partition with hammers and bare hands.

The wall's demise transformed the eastern part of the Continent. The USSR fell, the nations of the old Warsaw Pact awoke from the deep sleep of Communist rule. Now the bombing campaign over Kosovo could transform the West. Specifically, it may define the purpose of NATO in the post-cold- war era. Stability in southeast Europe could become the alliance's raison d'tre and a hinge on which relations with Russia and other remnants of the Soviet empire turn. In the struggle of wills with Mr. Milosevic, "first prize is responsibility for a perpetual protectorate in the Balkans," says Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. If nothing else, the effort to protect Kosovar ethnic Albanians has crossed something of a threshold in world affairs. By intervening in a dispute that Yugoslavia claimed to be its own internal business, NATO has in effect said there are times when the desire to enforce human rights can trump the need to respect national sovereignty. That's a lesson that US officials want to draw from the whole experience, anyway. "This victory brings a new hope that when a people are singled out for destruction because of their heritage and religious faith, and we can do something about it, the world will not look the other way," said President Clinton in his address to the nation last week. Maybe. But when it comes to Mr. Clinton's definition of "the world," it's not clear how many nations would count themselves in. Most prominently, Russia did not applaud NATO's "humanitarian" intervention. Indeed, the pre-emptive arrival of Russian peacekeeping troops in Kosovo - a move that surprised and vexed NATO leaders - is seen by some Western diplomats as a way for Russia to say it won't be sidelined any further in eastern Europe. "The Russians have made their statement," says one Western military observer. "Let's hope it remains at that." Russia may not have great cause for worry. For a number of reasons, the Yugoslav conflict may turn out to be a one-time event, as opposed to the beginning of a trend, say experts. To begin with, Milosevic was a repeat offender. US and European leaders had been embarrassed by their earlier weak responses to Serb aggression in Bosnia and Croatia. Moreover, Milosevic was too close for comfort. He was Europe's unruly neighbor, the guy down the block who throws his trash over your fence and dares you to do something about it. "It may be that Milosevic was a uniquely reviled person.... I can't imagine NATO using force in essentially similar circumstances in the future," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. …