Fireworks, happy faces and joyous toasts and anthems marked TV coverage around the world February 17 as crowds in Pristina celebrated Kosovo’s unilateral dec- laration of independence from Serbia. While the once- autonomous province of Serbia had been administered as a UN protectorate since 1999, its formal self-creation as the seventh independent state to emerge from the wreckage of ex-Yugoslavia was for many of the new country’s two mil- lion Albanian-speaking Kosovars a triumph of justice and of their will to resist. The moment probably does signal the end of Kosovo’s dark history of several centuries of ethnic subjugation, but it will be a long struggle yet before Kosovo is either a viable state or a partner of Balkan neighbours will- ing at last to work together in a wider and peaceful Europe.

I recall the words of South African anti-apartheid activist Susan Collin Marks after the 1990 Wembley Stadium concert when Nelson Mandela thanked the world for the ”œsupport and solidarity they had shown the oppressed peo- ple of South Africa.” ”œHow easy it had been to cheer Mandela,” Marks wrote, ”œand how hard it would be to remake the nation.”

South Africa’s journey since has not been easy, but the country is intact, independent and widely respected. A gut- wrenching truth and reconciliation process has enabled South Africans if not to forget the past, then at least to exor- cize its demons enough to permit them to move forward as a multiracial pluralist society.

Can we expect as much for Kosovo when the celebrations are over? Its heart-wrenching struggles have per- suaded many countries to declare recognition of Kosovo as a state, even though it is deeply contested by Serbia, and by Russia " whose UN Security Council veto will deny the new state membership in the UN. The UN had tried to broker endgame final-status negotiations but the two parties, Serbs and Kosovars, could not agree. Complete independence from Serbia was the one outcome Serbs could not accept, but was the only outcome which would satisfy Kosovars.

The readiness of most of the world to recognize the outcome as legitimate is less a matter of compelling law than the conviction that the brutal treatment of Kosovar Albanians by Serbia has forfeited Serbian terri- torial prerogatives.

This judgment is one more bitter pill for Serbia to swallow. While a reprise of organized Serbian violence against the new state is improbable, the deep-rooted sense of victimization in Serbia constitutes a volatile ingredient in what remains a potent mix of sustained tensions in the Western Balkans, which have known lethal conflict ever since the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to break up 25 years ago.

In the long history of ethnic collision which the region has known, most of the parties " Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, Croatians, Albanian Kosovars and now Kosovar Serbs " assume a cloak of vic- timization easily. Ethnic migrations have come and gone.

Kosovo’s example has been more dramatic than most. It was in the 13th century the crucible of Serbian cultur- al and religious life. It was where the Serbs fought the totemic Battle of Kosovo against the Ottomans in 1389.

The centuries which followed saw the gradual displacement of Serbs in Kosovo and the emergence of an Albanian majority. But the lid there, as elsewhere in Yugoslavia, was kept on by the structures of Tito’s federal state, which awarded Kosovo a semi- autonomous status within Serbia. Even so, this was never going to be enough for the Kosovars, who sought first, in 1981, a republic of their own in Yugoslavia, and then, as time went on and Yugoslavia broke up, their own ”œindependence.”

Seasoned Balkan experts had always believed that the flashpoint for Balkan violence after Yugoslavia’s breakup began would indeed be Kosovo rather than Bosnia. The ethnic changes, the retreat of Serbs from the birthplace of their deepest national myths and the growing appetite for more autonomy on the part of the Albanian Kosovars were plain to see. The territory has been compared to Palestine, a ”œsacred” land claimed by two bitter contestants separated by lan- guage, religion and national histories.

As the lid came off, Europeans witnessed nightmares of violence which it was believed had ended for- ever in 1945. Belgrade sought to defend ethnic Serbs in their outlying communities in breakaway Croatia and Bosnia, by creating semi- autonomous enclaves and by aggression against Croats and Bosnian Muslims to ”œclean” them out of dis- tricts once ethnically diverse. Classical UN peacekeeping efforts, which sought to mediate without tak- ing sides or identifying an aggressor, failed to stop the violence or deter Serbia from appalling acts of ethnic cleansing and even mass murder. The US Secretary of State famously said his country had ”œno dog in this fight” and turned toward the European Union, whose lead ministers in 1990 fatuously declared the crisis had creat- ed ”œthe hour of Europe,” but who failed miserably to influence.

Indeed, so did we all. A NATO sum- mit in Rome failed to address the Serbian bombardment of the port of Dubrovnik just across the Adriatic. The world watched the agony of Sarajevo. The Serbs marched 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys to mass executions at Srebrenica. But NATO countries " notably the United States, traumatized by the televised murder of a dozen of its soldiers after a humanitarian interven- tion in Somalia gone wrong " would not take the political risk of ”œputting boots on the ground” in the Balkans.

With Serbia and its populist, dem- agogic and ethnic supremacist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, only force would work. Milosevic had made the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Koso- vo in 1989 the launching platform for his form of surprisingly vindictive eth- nic politics, which dominated Serbian political culture for almost two decades. Also in 1989, Milosevic revoked the limited autonomy of Kosovo within Serbia. The crackdown on Albanian Kosovars after street demonstrations in 1991 was severe and it hardened in successive years. Thousands of Albanian-speakers were summarily fired from local posts. Edu- cation in the language of the 90 per- cent majority was forbidden. Police pressure on the population intensified.

International pressure and an effective counter-attack on Serbian forces by Croatia did at last create the conditions for a Bosnian peace settle- ment, which was in effect a carve-up, at Dayton in 1995. The problem was that in order to get Milosevic to coop- erate, there could be no mention at Dayton of the problem in Kosovo.

Until then, the Kosovar non-violent resistance led by Ibrahim Rugova was classically Gandhian, believing in a peaceful path to independence.

But Rugova and his option were deeply under- mined by the exclusion of Kosovars and their grievances from the Dayton nego- tiations. The result was that hard-liners were able to use the disappointment of Kosovars to gain support for a guerrilla warfare option. The Kosovo Liberation Army was created in 1996, and by 1997 it was attacking Serbian police and offi- cials on the ground. Within a year, the KLA controlled about 40 percent of the Kosovar territory. It could not have defeated the Serbian army but it could succeed in provoking Serbia into a mas- sive overkill retaliation, especially on the part of Serbian militias pre-disposed to brutality.

Their excesses in Kosovo in 1998 and early 1999 lived up to their reputation. When Milosevic decided to cleanse the Albanian-speaking Kosovars from their homes, forcing them to flee eastward to Albania and Macedonia, he provided public opin- ion around the world with a reason at last to support stiff intervention against the Serbian aggressors.

The photos and video clips of fam- ilies with suitcases of essentials being herded to railway sidings to board expulsion trains resonated across Europe and North America. If ”œNever again” meant anything, it meant tak- ing a stand on this. The political spec- trum was for once united in Europe. On the left, humanitarian interven- tionist hawks like Bernard Kouchner found support from such unlikely allies as Trotskyite Vanessa Redgrave and ex- Red Brigade leader Adriano Sofri.

However, the decision to bomb the Serbs into submission had only moral authority, not the legality of a Security Council resolution authoriz- ing NATO to conduct the attacks. Russia blocked it.

Russian motives may have had a portion of Slavic solidarity for their Serbian allies, but mostly, Russia was feeling resentful about NATO doing things its own way. Ever since 1989, Russian leaders had felt duped by the West over the eastward expansion of NATO. Gorbachev told me in Moscow in the early ”˜90s that he had a tacit understanding this would not happen. That it did was only fair to the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and later the Balts and others who sought NATO member- ship as a democratic coming-of-age, and as a safety net, but Russia felt isolat- ed and somewhat used. So it does today, though its current willingness to veto the independence of Kosovo in the Security Council comes with a great deal of self-confidence absent in 1999.

NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign " NATO’s first combat operations ever " was only a semi-success, via a process of targeting deci- sion-by-committee which horrified the US military and which anticipated some of the coordination problems we see today in Afghanistan.

Because of the assiduous effort to avoid civilian casualties, the bombing lasted 79 days, far longer than originally expected when launched on March 24, 1999. In fact the person who finally persuaded Milosevic to give up was the Russian ex-premier Victor Chernomyrdin.

The loss was Milosevic’s downfall. Before long, Serbs, tired of the humili- ations he had brought them to, turfed him out in favour of democrat Vojislav Kostunica, and sent him off to stand trial in The Hague.

But while Prime Minister Kostunica is a democrat, he is also a Serbian nationalist, no more dis- posed to seeing Kosovo thumb its nose at Serbs than before. He has dis- avowed the use of violence but promises non-cooperation with what he calls ”œthis false state.”

The European Union is resolved to bring Serbia around with incentives which will reward the Serbs ultimately with EU membership, and in the meantime with a lot of financing. Serbs seem to have bought into some of the rationale that they have to accept new realities and move on, in choosing in February to maintain the relatively moderate Boris Tadic as president over an extreme rejectionist nationalist. But even moderately pro-European Tadic reads public opinion as being unrelent- ing on the principle of Kosovar inde- pendence, while acknowledging there is not much it can do about it except be as unhelpful as possible.

Serbs are feeling standoffish about the EU, to the point that some Serbs moot a closer alliance instead with Russia, despite the fact that Russia is only Serbia’s 18th-largest investor. But it is hoped that at the end of the day, most Serbs are keen to live in a modern European democracy with a European standard of living such as that enjoyed by another ex-Yugoslav republic, Slovenia, and are probably ready to let the pull of the mythic past recede, if not completely.

But one by-product of the discon- tent is the probability that the EU now will not insist the Serbs find and hand over macro-war-criminal Ratko Mladic as a precondition of closer relations, which if nothing else seriously twists the EU’s moral compass.

Also, there will now be attempts to demonstrate that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence should be a sound precedent for the recognition of other breakaway ethnic regions in the ”œfrozen conflicts” from the break-up of the USSR, such as Russian-dominated South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, or Transdniestra in Moldova. That won’t wash with most, primarily because these situations don’t have the compelling and exceptional moral imperatives which characterized Albanian Kosovo, but Russia will claim it as yet another example of the West’s double standards. Others with a history of breakaway vio- lence, such as Spain, or fears of it, such as China are also uneasy about Kosovo’s unilateral independence. Canada will not be among the first in the queue to recognize Kosovo, for that matter.

In reality, Kosovo’s independence will be highly conditional. Since the new state will hardly be able to stand on its own, its security will be provided by a combination of NATO and the EU, with special attention to protecting the Serbian minorities. Kosovo will be an EU protectorate, heavily bankrolled.

One of the responsibilities of the EU police forces and the 17,000 NATO troops will be to ensure there is no outbreak of ethnic violence, either against the small Serbian communities remaining or against the Albanian Kosovars in Kosovo’s northern districts, where half of Kosovo’s remaining 5 percent who are Serbs live in a fairly concentrated way. There, the new state’s writ won’t travel, as Serbian communities will be administered de facto by Serbian social and government services, using the Serbian currency.

The economic challenges Kosovo faces are many, starting with 44 percent unemployment, and fairly dark tenden- cies of corruption and criminal clans.

Recent history shows that the best intentions in the Balkans fall prey to a cynical recourse to ethnic violence. But the joyous faces of February 17 are those of ordinary folk who want things to improve, and maybe with application they will. One basic ingredient was signalled by Prime Minister Thaci, an ex-KLA com- mander, elected with only 35 percent of the vote but seemingly supported more widely in his determination to respect the rights of minorities and to try to move on in reconciliation.

Perhaps there will be a break in the historical pattern, but it will require a lot of patience, mentoring, armed forces and treasury expense to make the celebratory spirit of February 17 a reality. Still, the ambiguous situa- tion could not continue indefinitely. The unilateral decision has at least concentrated minds, and hopefully we have learned from post-conflict situa- tions enough to help the Balkans help themselves at last to heal.