Very quietly, the United States has reassured the European nations - and specifically the national and ethnic actors in the Balkan drama - that it intends to remain engaged in southeastern Europe.
That applies to Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bosnia, but also to the construction of a wider political framework to include Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania. US troops now on the ground will stay, although some may be replaced by well-trained civilian police. And President Bush has signaled his concern by inviting President Boris Trajkovski of Macedonia to the White House in May. That is both a gesture of respect to strengthen Mr. Trajkovich's moderate policy and an expression of Washington's desire that he open more doors to Macedonia's large, restive ethnic Albanian minority.
Even with Europe's active participation in the region financially and militarily, the American presence is still required as the conclusive security assurance. Yet simply being there is not enough. The flow of events continues, and must be channeled in the right direction. That has been done so far in Kosovo with considerable success by the United Nations political administration, backed by European economic aid and in the building of democratic institutions under the shield of KFOR, NATO's Kosovo force. What has been done, though, has been labeled "provisional," "transitional," and "interim."
The West's official position, as laid down in UN Security Council Resolution 1244, is that Kosovo - which, under Slobodan Milosevic, was part of Serbia - shall have substantial self-government within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
However, Yugoslavia is little more than a figure of speech. It consists today of Serbia and Montenegro; and if Montenegro declares independence, Yugoslavia will be only Serbia. It is inconceivable, after 10 years of oppression under ex-President Milosevic, that Kosovo would agree to remain a part of Yugoslavia.
Today, with most of its Serb minority gone, Kosovo is some 90 percent Albanian. In furtherance of autonomy, it has been progressively divorcing itself from Yugoslavia. The German mark is its currency; it collects taxes and duties at its own borders. A kind of constitution is now being written. Most important, it has had free elections. Voting for local advisory councils last fall went well, and favored a moderate party that for 10 years had held the people together in nonviolent resistance to the Serb occupation.
The next stop, later this year, is a general election. But what is to be elected - a provisional legislature and a transitional government? Kosovo is moving out of the subjunctive mood. This election will frame its identity. It will more or less quietly demand independence. Certainly, the present benevolent international trusteeship cannot be maintained indefinitely. Extremist nationalism that poisoned Yugoslavia exists here, too, and could attack an enforced status quo. This is not a strong society. Apart from economic and political woes, it is beset by corruption, smuggling, and varied gangsterism.
Some advocate partition to reduce ethnic strife. This is no answer. The largest remnant of Kosovo's Serb minority is in the north; but so also are many Albanians - and the Trepca mining and industrial complex, without which a rump Kosovo would be crippled. In any case, Europe and America want a multiethnic Kosovo, not a parody of Mr. Milosevic's ethnic cleansing.
The West faces a quandary. The new democratic regime in Belgrade is now a silent partner. Yugoslav troops and police are back in the "ground safety zone" that NATO drew around Kosovo in 1999. In south Serbia they keep Albanian radicals from infiltrating Macedonia. Kosovo's independence now would deal Belgrade a major blow.
Nevertheless, how long can Kosovo's independence be delayed? Europe and the United States are working on a "stability pact" for southeast Europe that would link those nations through their common interest in peace, security, and prosperity.
As one European diplomat remarked: To join, Kosovo must be a state. It cannot be allowed to become a black hole.
Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor