It's a military man's nightmare - to march into a situation where everyone has a gun and no one seems in charge.
Last week, NATO gave a pass on sending a military force to strife-torn Albania. But in the end, Albania's meltdown was one that Europe could not ignore.
Yesterday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to send military and police advisers to Albania to help restore order, especially around the capital, Tirana.
The mission, while small in scale, sent a signal of Europe's new resolve to take a hand in managing conflicts on the Continent. "We acted in Albania today because we didn't act in Bosnia yesterday," says Dominique Moisi of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. "How could we negotiate with the Americans on new security arrangements within NATO if something happens on Europe's border and we don't act?"
Europeans are still smarting from a comment by former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke last year that "Europe slept" through a crisis affecting its own security. The peace accords ending the four-year Bosnian conflict, which killed 200,000, were hammered out in Dayton, Ohio.
In one of many recent references to the Holbrooke comment, the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche headlined its coverage of the latest European initiative: "Albania: Europe wakes up."
"There are less than 3 million Albanians and 350 million in the European Union; it would be shocking if these 350 million, mainly rich Europeans proved to be incapable of going to the aid of 3 million Albanians in crisis," French Foreign Minister Herv de Charette said in an interview in Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday.
But the stakes for Europe in this conflict are more than credibility or wounded pride. If Albania continues its slide into anarchy, the conflict could spread across the Balkans and send a new flood of immigrants into European cities and ports.
"While it is obvious that Europe should have acted to separate warring sides or stop an aggressor in Bosnia, it's much more difficult to create a state where one no longer exists. But what's at stake is Europe's credibility," said Mr. Moisi.
Since last Thursday, more than 4,000 Albanian refugees have made their way across the Adriatic Sea on boats to Italian ports. Greece and Bulgaria also fear that anarchy in Albania could set off violence among Albanian minorities in neighboring Macedonia, Montenegro, and especially Kosovo province in Serbia, where some 1.8 million Albanians, some 90 percent of the population, have long been considered a tinderbox in the region.
Last week, Yugoslavia closed the border between Albania and the Serbian province of Kosovo, and border incidents have stepped up between Albania and Montenegro.
"The real danger is that no one is in control of the situation. In Albania, President [Sali] Berisha has lost all legitimacy; in neighboring Yugoslavia, the ethnic Albanian leader in Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, doesn't control his own people; and the Macedonian government can't control the 20 to 25 percent of its population who are ethnic Albanians. In this context, the least incident can be heavy with consequences. Violence seems inevitable," said Jonathan Eyal, director of the Royal United Services Institute of London in an interview in the French weekly L'Express.
On Saturday, the 54-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe discussed a three-point plan for Albania, including increased aid, deployment of a "stabilization force," and help in restoring human rights.
"If help is not provided soon, it could destabilize the whole region," said Lars Fissing, chairman of the OSCE Permanent Council.
But Europeans remain divided on the terms of any military mission. Greece, Italy, Austria, and Spain have said that they support direct military intervention in Albania. France supports the concept of intervention, but has said it will not commit troops. Germany, Britain, and Sweden oppose sending in a European security force.
"We can't get involved in another adventure," German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said yesterday. French diplomats say that they "pushed for more resolute action on the ground," but that European partners, especially Germany and Britain, were not prepared to go along.
"News that the situation was beginning to quiet down in Tirana [in the last two days] also reduced the sense of urgency to take stronger action," said a French foreign ministry spokesman yesterday.
As a first step, the 15-member European Union is sending a high-level mission to Tirana today, led by Dutch diplomat Jan Comte de Marchant and including representatives from the OSCE. The EU will also consult with the United Nations on whether a formal UN mandate was needed.
The EU statement also called on Albania to take responsibility for its own reconstruction: "There is a need for the Albanians to accept responsibility for rebuilding their country and society ... to enable the EU to help them."
EU foreign ministers sharply watered down French and Italian proposals to send in a 3,000- to 4,000-man force under a UN mandate to secure strategic points in Albania. "The situation is far more complex than Bosnia, where at least we knew who the sides were," said a European military official.
The chaos in Albania looks like the 1993 US-led effort to feed people in Somalia and suppress warlords, says IFRI's Moisi.