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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liberty, Not Sovereignty, at Stake in Kosovo

Remember Kosovo? "Madeleine's war," Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, a million displaced Albanians and NATO's 78 days of bombing? So much history in the eight summers since has pushed this dusty Balkan plot off the map. But a relic of 1990s geopolitics is back in the headlines.

Caught among a pushy Kremlin, weak-kneed Europe and otherwise-occupied Washington, the Kosovars are being denied their happy ending. Unless the United States forcefully steps in to usher this province of 2 million to independence without any messy compromises, Southeast Europe could fall off track again, with nasty repercussions for everyone.

The Kosovo matter should have been closed by now. In the spring, United Nations mediator Martti Ahtisaari proposed internationally "supervised" independence -- the fervent desire of over 9 in 10 Kosovars -- and protections for the remaining 100,000 or so Serbs. More than a year of diplomatic efforts went for naught when Russia last month threatened to veto the plan at the UN Security Council. The Europeans quickly got Washington to sign off on 120 days of further talks. This empty concession delayed the problem to the fall, encouraging Moscow and its Slavic cousins in Serbia to dig in their heels.

The United States and its allies have put billions in aid, political capital and boots on the ground to bring the former Yugoslav states to the doorstep of the West's elite clubs. Now comes the hitch. When NATO agreed to put its status in limbo at the end of the 1999 war and sent in a UN government, no one could know that a future President Vladimir Putin would turn Kosovo into a proxy for his larger fight with the West, along with missile defense and Iran.

Well-laid plans are in jeopardy. Kosovo's Albanian leaders, who have popular legitimacy but limited powers, are sitting tight. This patience may not hold long. Fresh elections are due in November, coinciding with the end of the latest negotiation period. Pressure is on them to declare independence unilaterally.

Among the consequences could be that barely dormant ethnic nationalisms flare up. Kosovo's Serbs may try to cut away the northern sliver of the province, while Albanians may feel emboldened to press anew for a "Greater Albania" -- uniting a nation currently scattered among four into a single state. Violence is a good bet. If it sounds like a recipe for another Cyprus -- a conflict to the south frozen for 33 years -- then Moscow envoys have mooted the island as their model for Kosovo's future. The Balkans would then be harder to digest for the West. Naturally, this suits Russia fine.

A different Europe might unite in response to the Kremlin's provocation. This one is splintering, as in the early 1990s also over the Balkans. Britain wants to push ahead on independence, while the Germans fear antagonizing Moscow. In between, the French claimed the diplomatic lead and pushed the three-month delay. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister and the UN's first "governor" of Kosovo after the 1999 war, stunned his hosts during a recent visit there by pointedly refusing to rule out a partition of Kosovo. Maps showing what an ethnically divided province might look like have been passed around for years. The Kouchner refusal made people wonder how far the EU is willing to go to get a Security Council resolution in order to cover up its own divisions, which Putin ably exploits.

"Russia is just using Kosovo to prove they are a superpower again," says Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku, an ethnic Albanian. Kosovo's Albanians aren't the only community held hostage to big- power politics. Over the Iber River, around 50,000 Serbs live in their own limbo. In the seven years since I last visited the divided city of Mitrovica, little has changed. Over a bridge from the Albanian quarter, the Serbian dinar is used instead of the euro and all the cars have Serbian license plates. Belgrade insists these Kosovars boycott government institutions in Pristin and calls all the shots in the UN negotiations, with little input from their ethnic kin in Kosovo itself.

Kosovo's Serbs are the Palestinians of the Balkans -- useful pawns who could soon get their own Gaza Strip if Western will flags. Oliver Ivanovic, a community leader who right after the war organized special teams to guard the main bridge linking the town, says no Serb can accept independence for Kosovo.

Any move to split off the region north of the Iber would be costly for Kosovo's Serbs, too. Just over half the Serbs live in the Albanian-majority regions. Without the Ahtisaari protections, another exodus to refugee camps in Serbia would be likely -- not an image that anyone, save perhaps Moscow, should welcome.

Such an ending would be uglier still if Albanian separatists in Macedonia and Serbian separatists in Bosnia -- two of the uneasiest multiethnic constructs in the Balkans -- are encouraged to follow Kosovo's lead. Far better, says analyst Dukaghin Gorani in Pristina, to bury "Greater Albania" and other nationalist dreams for good and anchor the southern Balkans in the EU. "Boring Occidental politics" would then take the place of "the old joy of Balkan politics of ethnic cleansings and murders."

International shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade and Pristina planned for the coming weeks is pointless. Absent a sudden leadership change in Moscow, the United States and Europe ought to see the writing on the wall and plan for an orderly, unilateral Kosovar declaration. Giving up hope of a UN blessing for independence, Ceku wants to set a date for a coordinated declaration with the United States and EU, if possible, and key countries in the EU. NATO troops and funds must stay, along with minority protections. Kosovars would, however, be better off with less "supervision" and greater leeway to "build a new state," in the words of Hashim Thaci, the president of the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo. After all, the stress in self-determination ought to be on self.

At stake isn't Serbian national sovereignty but liberty for the Kosovars. This province was part of Yugoslavia, a state that no longer exists; Serbia effectively lost its claim in the 1990s. The EU plays softly with Belgrade, even recently restarting talks toward eventual membership. Instead, Belgrade should be given a stark choice: a future in league with Russia, or the EU and NATO. Kosovo is the test.

From the moment former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pushed for military intervention, Kosovo became an U.S.-led nation-building project. Of the ones currently on the docket, it ought to be the easiest, too. At the command of 2,500 peacekeeping troops in the southeast, General Douglas Earhart, who is in charge of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, says Kosovo is "where we'd like to be in Iraq and Afghanistan." Accepted by both Serbs and Albanians, the United States' advantage is not to be European. "We don't have a history in the Balkans," he says.

Calm now, Kosovo can blow up unexpectedly. Three years ago in March, Albanian-led riots left 19 dead and forced hundreds of Serbs to flee. The job isn't finished. "This is one of the places," says Earhart, "you have to see through to the end."

Matthew Kaminski is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.