'The Balkanization Of Europe'

Europe's recurring nightmare in the Balkans has returned. On June 15, Kosovo will announce full statehood. But NATO is allowing Serbs to turn northern Kosovo into a new law-free zone for criminal activity. In March, in the northern city of Mitrovica, Serb thugs, unleashed and armed by Belgrade, launched a full-scale assault against NATO and United Nations forces, killing one soldier and wounding 83 others. During Macedonia's election earlier this month, the police opened fire and killed a political activist who was angry about the open stuffing of ballot boxes and other crude election manipulation. The strange thing was that the ruling party did not even need to fix the election—it had the votes it needed to win. But like the scorpion in the fable, Balkan politicians just keep stinging themselves to death.

The West's response: near silence. More than 100 years ago, Bismarck dismissed the region's travails with his remark that "the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier." Today, Brussels, NATO and the United Nations are also turning a blind eye, lacking the will or the leadership to face down the Balkans' problems, which include a resurgent Serb nationalism that prefers its Balkan history to a European future. NATO intervened massively in Kosovo in 1999 and two years later in Macedonia to curb the anti-Albanian ethnic hostility of Macedonian nationalists. In 2001, NATO General Secretary George Robertson, with EU foreign-affairs duo Chris Patten and Javier Solana, shuttled to Macedonia and forced the Slav majority to treat the minority Albanian population with respect.

But now NATO and the others have let Kosovo slip down their priority list. Crack French troops failed to stop the Serb's March assault on the Mitrovica courthouse, and waited for days while political messages about whether to use military force to face down the Serbs went back and forth between the United Nations and Paris. Britain pulled its soldiers out of Kosovo in 2002 with the hopes that the turmoil in the region would die down. Now, for six short months an Iraq-hardened British Army battle group has been sent to Kosovo, but the Serbs wait patiently, knowing British Army chiefs need their soldiers in Afghanistan.

The EU leadership has also eased pressure on the Serbs. Brussels recently dropped its demand that the Serbs deliver the butcher of Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic, to the Hague tribunal as a pre-condition for talks on EU membership. Worse, while most EU nations recognized Kosovo's right to form its own government, Spain and Greece broke ranks to side with Russian and Serb intransigence. Further undermining the prospect of bringing lasting peace to the region, Spain is now helping Serb nationalists roll back Kosovo's declaration of independence by mounting a diplomatic campaign in Latin America to dissuade that regions' leaders from granting diplomatic recognition to the fledgling nation. For its part, the United States promised to open NATO's doors to Kosovo's neighbor Macedonia. But at end of George W. Bush's presidency, the United States has little diplomatic leverage, leaving Greece confident enough to snub Washington and kill Macedonia's NATO hopes in a surreal dispute over what Macedonia's name should be.

Into this power vacuum comes Russia, which has always seen the Balkans as its backyard and has meddled endlessly in the region. For many Balkan Slavs, Russia remains popular as the 19th-century liberator of the Balkans from Ottoman rule. Today, Moscow is seeking to cast its authority over the region in an effort to prove to Washington and Brussels that it has returned as a foreign-policy heavyweight. Montenegro is almost a new Russian colony, as rubles flow in to buy property and business in the tiny state, and Russia is using money and energy contracts to buy favors and influence in the rest of the Balkans. Serb nationalists talk openly of siding with Moscow and ditching Belgrade's proclaimed EU ambitions. The United Nations has also allowed Russia to block the implementation of the carefully balanced plan put up by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, which set out how Kosovo could move toward independence with full protection for Serb and other minorities.

And so the Balkans now moves backward, toward sectarian nationalism, flawed elections, lawless economics and a politics corroded by corruption, cronyism and criminality—all of which confirm the ancient prejudices about the region. In Bismarck's era it was possible to leave the Balkans to stew in its own mess. But now a bad bit of southeast Europe contaminates the whole continent. Rather than using the rule of law to defeat the traffickers, smugglers, election fraudsters and mobsters, the EU member states' desire to placate Belgrade is allowing bad old Balkans behavior to re-emerge. EU member nations like Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Spain openly defy the rest of the Union's desire to allow Kosovo to govern itself. Instead of coming together, the EU and NATO members are squabbling with one another and putting their own national obsessions and interests ahead of a common European policy. This trend gives rise to the fear that instead of seeing the Europeanization of the Balkans, we are witnessing the creeping Balkanization of Europe.