The last American war of the 20th century - the war over Kosovo - has gone unsettled. Kosovo has festered for more than six years since the actual NATO bombing campaign halted. Overseen by foreign powers, the little province is home to a host of intractable problems, rife with Muslim-Christian tensions, unable to move forward, and an obstacle to progress throughout the Balkans. Even Bosnia is moving ahead, with a new agreement on power-sharing just announced in Washington, but Kosovo is a harder case.
This week the first tentative talks on Kosovo's future status got under way. They are being directed by the capable former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, but a successful outcome will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.
Why now? Kosovo has no economy to speak of, no one in authority able to push through privatization, and consequently high unemployment. Hideously abused in the past by the Serbs, the Kosovar Albanians are now on top and have been wreaking vengeance on the Serb minority in their midst, capped last year by the ransacking of churches and a monastery. This naturally stirs strong feelings in Serbia proper, even with Slobodan Milosevic away in custody. Without a functioning judicial system, organized crime in Kosovo is flourishing, so much so that it poses a threat to the entire region.
The key will be to find a way by which Kosovo can become independent without achieving actual independence. Kosovo is too small (and too poor) to be a nation. No one thinks that annexation by neighboring Albania would be a good idea, even though 90 percent of the people in Kosovo are ethnic Albanians. Only the Serbs - and not many of them, actually - believe that Kosovo can be reabsorbed by Serbia. The only solution is to move Kosovo toward self-governance, but only after a fashion. Foreign organizations - particularly the European Union and NATO - will have to keep their hands in, because Kosovo is so mired in hatred and resentment that it cannot be trusted to provide its people with justice or security.
A Kosovo conundrum: The northern sector of the province is exclusively Serb and has re-established strong ties to Serbia, including Serbian direction of the police force. Yet formal partition has been ruled out by almost every country with an interest in the region. It would reduce Kosovo to an even more unmanageably small size, it would not address the problems of the larger Serb minority in the south of Kosovo, and it would set an unacceptable precedent for the rest of the Balkans. Yet rolling back Serbian influence in the north will call for deft political skill - and, most likely, some tangible payoffs to Belgrade.
Serbia and Kosovo - both - have to be enticed and tempted to play along so that they can aspire to join the European fraternity. The international community - and this must include the United States, which enjoys considerably greater credibility among the Albanians than the Europeans do - must recognize that "Europeanization" of the Balkan sore will be expensive, but far cheaper than allowing this vengeful and anarchic region to remain marginalized.
But the governments of Western Europe will have to persuade their increasingly skeptical populations that the EU should extend a hand to the Balkans. At the same time, the United Nations will have to give its stamp of approval to any new arrangement, and this means that veto-wielding Russia and China will have to be persuaded that a sort-of independence for Kosovo will not have any bearing on the status of Chechnya or Tibet. Pulling all this off will be a major feat. Too bad for the Chechens and Tibetans.