Left behind is Kosovo: traumatized, simmering, caught in limbo between a past repudiated by ethnic cleansing and an unliberated future.
Kosovo is an area with 2 million people. Ninety percent are Muslim ethnic Albanians, the rest mostly Christian Serbs. Tensions go back centuries due to clashes of culture, heritage and religion. Occasionally there were violent eruptions. After World War II, Josip Broz Tito brought together Yugoslavia under his Communist rule. To dilute Serbian dominance, he created various semi-autonomous governments, including in Kosovo, and used his secret police to crack down on any nationalists.
After Tito, in 1990, Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosovo autonomy. The only Albanian-language newspaper was banned. Albanian language TV and radio broadcasts ended. Pristina University was purged. Albanian security forces were replaced by 40,000 Serbian troops and police. Milosevic began a campaign of "ethnic cleansing": hundreds of thousands of Albanians were driven from their homes and 10,000 killed.
In 1999, NATO bombing ended the ethnic cleansing and Kosovo, while still a Serbian province, has been ruled by the U.N. ever since as a de facto protectorate. The issue today is whether Kosovo should gain independence or remain attached to Serbia.
Ethnic divisions remain deep. De facto state institutions are fragile. European standards on an independent judiciary, freedom of movement and various other criteria are not fully met. But the present uncertainty is untenable.
The real problems in Kosovo are poverty, crime, corruption and a democracy deficit. The physical infrastructure is dilapidated. Belgrade calls on the Serb population to boycott Kosovo institutions. Without the stability that only will come from resolving Kosovo's final status, there will be no foreign investment. And only an acceptance of that final status will move all ethnic groups to participate in building their joint future.
Fringe groups and extremists exploit the uncertainty and widespread frustration. Further ethnic violence is a rising concern. And, as a practical matter, Kosovo's international wardship cannot be extended indefinitely.
The chief U.N. administrator in Kosovo, Joachim Rucker, recently said, "Delay is more than just a loss of time. Delay will raise tension and play into the hands of extremists on all sides."
Former Finnish President Marti Ahntasari has led "final status" negotiations with all interested parties for a year. The International Contact Group appears posed to recommend Kosovo independence contingent on various conditions to ensure nondiscrimination and other things. Kosovo's dependence on the international donor community provides leverage to insure compliance.
It is time to set Kosovo free.
I recall a conversation I had in Mitrovica with Dr. Milena Cretkovic, a Serb. She told me, "I am a doctor who has treated Albanian patients. I never asked whether we could live together, we just did.
"It is difficult to be a minority when you have been a majority. Like the Germans after World War II, we live with the burden of guilt, but we will find a road forward."
The moment of truth has come. The gate should be swung open so they can walk down that road.
Richard S. Williamson is a Chicago lawyer and former U.S. ambassador at the U.N