Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Winning Balkans Peace Will Be a Long Haul

So you thought it was all over? Don't fool yourself, please.

Even before this war, I would not have been sanguine about the chances for ordinary, civilian Serbs in Kosovo. Last November, I asked a highly educated, apparently liberal-minded Kosovar woman in Pristina what she would do with Serbs in an independent Kosovo. She looked at me, blew out the smoke from her cigarette, and said: "Kill them all."

A joke, you understand, just a joke. But now it's no joke. And the trouble is that the NATO commander, General Mike Jackson, does not have the forces to prevent it. Even if he had the promised 50,000 men, he couldn't stop every revenge killing in every village or farmstead. But because we've been so pathetically slow in building up the forces on the ground, he doesn't have anything like that number of soldiers anyway.

Probably most of the Serbs in Kosovo won't wait to find out. They will flee together with the Serbian tanks. This means that Serbia itself will reel under the impact of still more refugees - and of the horror stories about Albanian atrocities against the Serbs in Kosovo.

Ironically enough, these are the very kinds of stories with which, in the mid-1980s, Milosevic's ascent to power began. This time, could they spell his end?

I have always thought that if anything would topple Milosevic, it might be the realization that, on top of everything else that he has done to Serbia, he has, in the end, lost Kosovo, too. But the state-controlled media will be insisting that Kosovo remains part of Yugoslavia, as formally it does, according to the peace agreement. And no one can say he didn't try to save Kosovo.

Even if losing Kosovo were to lead to the demise of Milosevic, what comes afterwards could be worse. The Serbian politician whose popularity was steadily rising already before the war is Vojislav Seselj, the radical nationalist.

The destruction caused by the bombing may also hasten a development already far advanced: the descent of a once civilized country into a place where power comes from the barrel of the gun, the police are the criminals, and the only law that matters is the law of the jungle.

So it's much too soon to celebrate, let alone to say that NATO has been entirely vindicated and that this shows how, with modern technology, you can win wars entirely from the air. Yes, it demonstrates that the largest sledgehammer in the world can finally crack a nut (and incidentally, the Serbian nut has never been quite as tough as most people believe). But we will be dealing with the consequences of having fought the war in this way - by bombing the infrastructure of Serbia proper from 15,000 feet - for years to come.

However, the peace agreement also provides for building "democratic self-rule institutions" under the umbrella of the international "provisional administration."

Currently, the Kosovar political leadership is hopelessly divided. The old pacifist leader, Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's would-be Gandhi, is heavily discredited by having appeared on Serb television with Milosevic while his people were being killed and deported. A prime minister in exile has most of the money from the many Kosovars living abroad.

There is the Kosovo Liberation Army leadership, much of it in Albania, and the KLA commanders in Kosovo itself. Then there are the liberal intellectuals from Pristina, desperately searching for their own Havel or Mandela.

Even if, as has been suggested, Paddy Ashdown or Carl Bildt were to become the head of the international administration, the key to the future of Kosovo will lie in the quality of this local leadership.

Then there are the neighbors. Albania is a country already in a condition of near-anarchy, reeling under the impact of half a million compatriots.

Macedonia is desperate to get the refugees back into Kosovo so as to restore its own desperately fragile balance between Slav Macedonians and Albanian Macedonians. Its economy has been devastated.

Montenegro, still formally part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, still inside the Serb lion's mouth, has a would-be democratic government that badly needs our support.

Bulgaria, which has been remarkably supportive of the NATO action, despite the sympathies of a good part of its population, now looks to receive some reward. And its economy, too, teeters on the brink.

In short, all around Kosovo, as a result of the war, there are great problems, and people looking to us for solutions.

The last new neighbor will be Serbia. Serbian democrats - no, that is not a contradiction in terms - say the key to the future of the whole region is a democratic Serbia. They are right, of course. But as I have suggested, the prospects for that have probably not been made brighter by the war.

In fact, what is most likely is a bitter Serbia, full of fantasies of heroic victimhood and dreams of revenge; something like inter-war Hungary, obsessed with territories stripped from it at the Treaty of Trianon, or a Balkan version of Weimar Germany.

To deal with such a state requires both effective military-based containment - a job for NATO - and the creation of a political environment around it in which ordinary Serbs gradually appreciate that there is a better alternative. The latter is a job for the European Union. Last week's Cologne summit of the EU was largely devoted to the Kosovo issue.

But it will need more than summit declarations to make a real difference in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. It will need money and the politics of the long haul.

"It is especially in the conduct of their foreign relations," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, "that democracies appear to me decidedly inferior to other governments. A democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles."

The problem has got worse since his day, as democratic leaders keep turning in the wind of the latest opinion poll. Our task now, in the Balkans, is to prove De Tocqueville wrong.

But the maddening thing about Tocqueville is that he's almost invariably right. Well, there's always a first time.

Timothy Garton Ash is the author of "History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s." He contributed this essay to The Independent.