WASHINGTON -- Kosovo is the biggest remaining Balkan challenge.
For the past three years, America and its allies have hoped that an undefined future status for Kosovo would be the incentive needed to encourage best practices and best behavior from Kosovo Albanians and Serbs.
This policy - right for its time - has run its course. The incentives need to change because only a clear path to earned independence for Kosovo will produce stability in the Balkans. There will be no further progress on the key issues in Kosovo until there is clarity about Kosovo's future.
The U.N. Security Council launched the effort to define Kosovo's final status Oct. 24. Even though Washington does not support a specific outcome at this point, the Bush administration, building on the work of its predecessors and with solid congressional support, has been both active and effective in pressing for a new way forward. Some of the pieces that can make this new way of thinking about the Balkans a reality are in place.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has chosen the outstanding former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, as the U.N. special envoy to lead the process to define Kosovo's future status. He arrived in the region last week to start the talks. Because so many U.S. interests are involved, a high-level senior American envoy should quickly be named to support Mr. Ahtisaari.
There are at least three questions to be resolved:
Will Kosovo's Albanian leaders put aside their personal differences and work together for a positive outcome? We know they want independence, but we do not know whether that strong desire will drive them to govern in ways that promote democracy, the rights of minorities and regional stability.
How will Serbs in both Belgrade and Kosovo react to Mr. Ahtisaari's new approach? Serbia's policy of encouraging Kosovo Serbs to boycott elections and to refuse participation in the Kosovo Assembly is counter-productive. Kosovo Serb leaders need to shape their future, not shun it.
Will the European Union act strategically? One of the EU's greatest accomplishments has been its ability to promote stability and democracy in Europe's east and south. The EU's Oct. 3 decision to open membership negotiations with Turkey is an important new step in that effort. The next big decision will be setting the right structure for a solution in Kosovo - a "grand bargain" that the United States should support and Mr. Ahtisaari could negotiate.
The "grand bargain" would look like this: In exchange for Belgrade's agreeing to Kosovo's independence, the European Union should offer Serbia a rapid path to EU membership. Kosovo should then also be put on the road to EU membership, though that road will be a longer one. It must have clear milestones for the protection of minorities and their property and the promotion of democracy.
The EU should assume responsibility for administering Kosovo and, as has happened in Bosnia, EU forces should replace NATO military forces in Kosovo. Such an outcome would guarantee democratic rights for all of the people of Kosovo, very much including minorities, and would further the integration of the region within the Euro-Atlantic community.
Allies should also be open to future NATO membership once the three indicted war criminals, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and Ante Gotovina, still at large, face justice in The Hague.
We have a new way to think about the remaining challenge in the Balkans. A stable, peaceful Europe is within sight. We now need the will and the perseverance to make the larger dream a reality.
Marc Grossman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2001-2005, is vice chairman of The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.