SEVEN YEARS after a U.S.-led NATO military campaign freed the Balkan province of Kosovo from the oppressive rule of Serbia, a firm Western consensus has formed about its future: It should be granted independence before the end of this year, perhaps under an international trusteeship. Both Kosovo and Serbia, along with adjacent republics of the former Yugoslavia, would then be guided toward full membership in the European Union. That way, the ethnic Albanians who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population would never again be ruled from Belgrade, which conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them in 1999; but Serbs who regard Kosovo as part of their national heritage could expect to be reunited with it under a European umbrella, while consolidating a liberal democracy in their own country.
This forward-looking vision seems to have a powerful appeal in the region. Polls show it is supported by an overwhelming majority of Kosovo Albanians. A survey reported by the Belgrade press last week showed that Serbs would vote for E.U. membership by 59 to 12 percent, while a plurality believe independence is the most realistic solution for Kosovo. Only 21 percent of Serbs say Kosovo is their most pressing concern. The problem, as so often during the past 20 years, is Serbia's political leadership, which remains addicted to the poisonous nationalism that drove the country into a series of disastrous wars during the 1990s.
Deaf to the increasingly blunt messages of Western governments and to his own public opinion, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica continues to stubbornly campaign for continued Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo. "Kosovo is part of Serbia," he declared during a visit to Washington this month, sounding disturbingly like Slobodan Milosevic, who used that slogan to found his nationalist regime in the late 1980s. Mr. Kostunica has been telling Western leaders that he wants his country to join the European Union and NATO, but he has repeatedly failed to meet a critical condition for moving forward, which is the arrest of Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic, a former general who is a hero to extreme nationalists.
Boris Tadic, the more liberal-minded president, has taken a somewhat softer line, agreeing last week to participate in face-to-face U.N.-sponsored talks with Kosovo's leaders in Vienna today. But Mr. Tadic has resorted to repeating veiled threats that independence for Kosovo could cause demands for border changes elsewhere in Europe -- beginning in neighboring Bosnia, where ethnic Serbs dream of adding territories they control to Serbia. That gambit has been embraced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has threatened to use the example of Kosovo to legitimize Moscow-backed separatist regimes in Georgia and Moldova.
All of this means that the West's attempt to resolve the legacy of the Balkan wars of the 1990s and position the region inside the liberal Europe of the 21st century is in jeopardy of being defeated by Serbia's 20th-century-style nationalism and Russia's 19th-century game of power politics. If so, the main victims will be not the Albanians of Kosovo -- who in any case will never again be subject to Serbia -- but the Serbs, who could find themselves isolated in Europe and dependent on the patronage of an autocratic and imperialistic Russia. The country remains, at least, a democracy: There remains the hope that, if its leaders cannot adjust, its people will eventually choose better leaders.