Quiz time: NATO's war over Kosovo in 1999 was fought:
1. To save the majority ethnic Albanians from the slaughtering Serb forces of Slobodan Milosevic.
2. To liberate the province for eventual independence from Serbia.
NATO's official answer is "1." Otherwise it stands accused of invading a country to split it up - a dangerous international precedent. So right now, Kosovo remains a United Nations protectorate.
But Mr. Milosevic was shown the door by his own people last month. And this Saturday, the 2 million people of Kosovo will vote in UN-run municipal elections. Both events ought to force Europe and the United States to seriously address the option of independence for the province.
Last week, an international commission recommended to the UN that Kosovo move toward "conditional independence." It argued, pragmatically, that keeping Kosovo's Albanian population under Belgrade's rule is not realistic. The ethnic and religious differences, not to mention the atrocities of recent years, are just too much.
But neither is it realistic to think of a fully independent Kosovo right around the corner. The new, elected Serb leader, Vojislav Kostunica, wants the province to remain part of Serbia. And the foundation for self-government is not there.
The Albanian Kosovars must show they can treat the minority Serbs and Roma (Gypsies) fairly and humanely. Their leaders must move beyond nationalist fervor toward negotiations and partnership with their neighbors.
Other parts of the Balkans are moving that way. Croatia has expunged the old rabid nationalism; Bosnia's ethnically mixed people are beginning to work together; and Serbia is charting a new course.
The new Serb leader has offered a few constructive measures: He acknowledges the Serbs' violent excesses in Kosovo and is willing to release the hundreds of Albanians held in Serbian prisons. Leaders in Kosovo could respond by pledging to protect Serbian Orthodox holy places in Kosovo.
The thuggery and vengefulness of many ethnic Albanians after the war are still too near the surface. Democratic processes, such as this weekend's local elections, and parliamentary elections next year, should help tamp down the violent undercurrents.
International involvement in Kosovo, meanwhile, provides insurance that those processes have a chance to succeed. The military and financial investments made there by Europe and the US are not short term. They will take patience for them to pay off, but at a pace clearly leading to independence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society