Every day we watch the tragic bloodshed in the northern Balkans, wondering how much of it might have been prevented if the West had developed a clear policy at the beginning to respond to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The lesson of the disasters in Bosnia and Croatia is that unless measures are taken before hostilities began, it becomes impossible, even for a superpower like the United States, to stop the conflict afterward.

It is crucial that we heed that lesson to keep the conflict in the northern Balkans from spilling over to the south and spreading to countries that have so far avoided it, including Albania, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and, most critical of all, the major powers in the region, Greece and Turkey -- historical adversaries and uneasy allies in NATO.

The way to avoid an all-out bloodbath in the Balkans is to put in place now a clear and firm policy directed at the spot where, everyone agrees, such a conflict is likely to begin. That place is Kosovo, the southwestern part of the former Yugoslavia. Serbs consider Kosovo sacred because it is where their nation began, but now it is overwhelming populated by ethnic Albanians, most of whom are Muslims.

Kosovo is a political powder keg ready for the slightest spark. The Serbs are keeping the lid on through martial law, waiting for the fighting in Bosnia to end before moving to reduce the Muslim population by pushing hundreds of thousands of them across the border into Albania. At the same time Kosovo Albanians are quietly amassing arms sent by friendly Muslim countries, waiting for the right chance to strike out against the Serbs.

So far the United States has responded to this volatile threat of combustion in the Balkans by warning the Serbs that we will intervene militarily if they move against the Albanian population in Kosovo. We have not issued such a warning about any other part of Yugoslavia, so the threat makes it clear how concerned Washington is about Kosovo.

But the warning, made by both the Bush and Clinton administrations, may actually encourage conflict in Kosovo rather than prevent it. While it may restrain the Serbs, it may encourage the Albanians in Kosovo to revolt because they feel the Americans would come to their rescue and help them win independence or, their ultimate goal, union with Albania.

The Albanian government in Tirana has fed such ambitions by calling for Kosovo's independence and emphasizing the "unity" of all Albanians in the region. Behind such encouragement is the dream of absorbing a part of Serbia that is much more developed than Albania itself and the hope of resettling the southern part of Albania, called Northern Epiros, with Albanians from Kosovo in order to push out the ethnic Greeks who live there and want their own independence.

But such a move by Tirana would compel Greece to intervene to protect the Greek population in Northern Epiros, which, in turn, would probably cause the Turks to rush to the support of their fellow Muslims in Albania ... and the whole Balkans would explode into war.

Warning only one side not to take action in Kosovo, therefore, will not only fail to avert conflict in the area but may actually ensure that hostilities would break out throughout the region.

What is needed is not warnings whose consequences have not been thought out but an effective policy that will restrain the ethnic ambitions of all the parties in the southern Balkans.

The key to such a policy is for the Clinton administration to call for parallel status for Kosovo and Northern Epiros and to insist that rights granted to one will also go to the other. If that is done, the Albanians will be moved to scale back their demands for Kosovo because they will have to give the same rights to the Greeks of Northern Epiros. At the same time, the Serbs could not refuse to grant a political settlement to Albanian Muslims in Kosovo if it is also offered to their fellow Orthodox Christians in Northern Epiros.

That status should not offer these minorities the means to unite with the adjacent countries to which they feel ethnic kinship -- Albania and Greece -- because any alteration of borders in the Balkans would create havoc throughout the region. What will work best is a form of autonomy that will give both minorities the power to develop their own cultural, educational and religious institutions as they wish, but still keep them within existing borders.

But any plan that is unfair and unbalanced, that ignores the realities of the region and tries to address the grievances of the Albanian minority in Serbia while ignoring the Greek minority in Albania, is doomed to failure. Indeed, it would ignite all of the Balkans at the close of this century into the kind of conflagration that devastated the region at the beginning of it.

All the states of the former Yugoslavia, except for Slovenia, have large ethnic minorities, as do most of the other countries in the Balkans, Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. In Georgia alone, two separatist groups are battling the central government for self-determination. Similar conflicts are certain to break out in many other countries unless a way is found to satisfy the aspirations of minorities without threatening the sovereignty of the states in which they live. Kosovo and Northern Epiros offer an ideal opportunity for the international community, led by the United States, to forge a model for that kind of autonomy.

If such a model had existed three years ago, the bloodbath in the northern Balkans might have been avoided. It is worth noting that even the political leaders of Slovenia were willing to remain in the Yugoslav federation if their calls for autonomy had been met. The United States must take the lead in convincing countries with strong ethnic minorities that autonomy is not a threat but an opportunity. The place to began is the southern Balkans.

The writer, a former foreign correspondent and the author of "Eleni," was born of Greek parents on the border between Greece and Albania.