SKOPJE, MACEDONIA -- Averting a humanitarian catastrophe was NATO's stated justification for bombing Serbia and its Kosovo province in 1999. But initial successes quickly succumbed to the reverse ethnic cleansing of more than 200,000 Serbs and other minorities by Albanian militants.
Now, despite seven years of U.N. policing and donor largess, Kosovo's remaining minorities still live in fear, and the economy and infrastructure remain in shambles.
Behind their faM-gade of optimism, Western leaders negotiating Kosovo's future status are panicking. Realizing that Albanians will violently contest any continued affiliation with Serbia, they believe independence alone can ensure peace. Yet Kosovo is a classic quagmire, one with ominous repercussions for peace.
Deciding Kosovo's rightful ownership is difficult. It pits two peoples, and two hallowed principles, against each another. Albanians - 90 percent of the population - invoke self-determination to justify independence. Yet Serbian cultural legacy goes back seven centuries in Kosovo, which was only independent when Adolf Hitler's Albanian allies briefly enjoyed their Nazi puppet state. Further, U.N. Resolution 1244 in 1999 affirmed Yugoslav sovereignty.
Kosovo's independence will be conditional, promises the West, on its treatment of minorities. Yet nothing can realistically enforce compliance. If the Albanians continue intimidating Serbs, penalizing them by delaying NATO or European Union accession will have little impact; an advanced Balkan candidate, Macedonia, won't enter NATO before 2008, or the EU before 2013.
A well-informed international official predicts remaining Serbs will flee within 10 years of Kosovo's independence. So by the time Kosovo gets anywhere near NATO or EU accession, the minority issue will be moot.
Albanian attacks against Serbs still occur amid an atmosphere of a siege mentality. If the last Serbs are expelled, Belgrade's remaining argument for possession will vanish. Its first argument, for cultural heritage, no longer applies because since 1999, over 100 Orthodox churches, some 700 years old, have been damaged or destroyed by Albanians - thus eliminating Kosovo's most lucrative tourist attractions.
Further, the United Nations dismayed Kosovo's minorities by making a man who once terrorized them prime minister. Albanian war veteran Agim Ceku, whose name was removed from Interpol's wanted list after fierce U.N. lobbying, is accused of widespread atrocities while serving in Croatia's military and while leading the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999.
Mr. Ceku's close associate and another veteran, Ramush Haradinaj, was indicted by the Hague Tribunal. Nevertheless, Mr. Haradinaj is now free to participate in Kosovo politics though he's technically an indicted war criminal awaiting trial.
Such privileged treatment reveals the fatal flaw of the U.N. mission. Canadian police Detective Stu Kellock, who headed the U.N. Regional Serious Crimes Unit in 2000 and 2001, says investigations implicating Albanian politicians or their associates were routinely blocked. The orders came directly from Washington, London and Brussels. Mr. Ceku and Mr. Haradinaj control Kosovo's militant factions and are considered heroes by Albanians. An anxious United Nations continually has sought to stay on their good side through appeasement.
Independence is a mere panacea for Kosovo's Albanians. They will remain poor. Erstwhile Albanian refugee workers - Kosovo's real breadwinners - will be sent home by European governments sensitive to popular anti-immigrant sentiments. Minorities will flee as nationalist militants remobilize to purge Serbs and annex Albanian-inhabited areas of Macedonia and Montenegro.
Bosnian Serbs, as well as Bosnian Muslims in Serbia's Sandjak region, also could demand self-determination.
Alarmingly, the West has no Plan B for ensuring Balkan peace. Plan A - open borders through eventual NATO and EU membership for all - is far off and ignores the anti-expansion sentiment among EU electorates. Membership may never arrive. The Balkans might well drift aimlessly.
In early 1999, Kosovo was a brutal but contained local conflict, relegated to villages. Botched Western intervention has made it a potential precedent for multiregional warfare.
Christopher Deliso is an American freelance journalist in Macedonia and director of an independent Balkan-interest Web site. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.