The world is still cleaning up the stains of Slobodan Milosevic's bloody ethnic cleansing. On Monday, the Security Council gave the green light to Kosovo, a United Nations protectorate since 1999, to begin negotiating an end to the legal fiction that it is still a province of Serbia and Montenegro, the successor state of the former Yugoslavia.
Separately, the United States said that it is ready to tackle the lingering problems of Bosnia as well.
It will discover along the way that Montenegro, too, wants to secede from Serbia — just as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia had earlier.
America is well suited to attend to all this unfinished business of the 1990s.
Unlike elsewhere in the world, its credibility is high in the Balkans. After being late in reacting to Serbian atrocities, it brokered the 1995 Dayton Accord on Bosnia, and then led the NATO bombing campaign that drove the Serbs out of Kosovo. Americans now constitute a tenth of the peacekeeping force of 17,000 there.
George W. Bush is keen to help the Kosovars. They were among the first Muslims to support his war on Iraq, thinking of Saddam Hussein as an Arab version of Milosevic. And Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova is among the few genuine Muslim democrats in Bush's diplomatic arsenal.
I once asked Rugova what his vision for Kosovo was. "Not Islamic nor even Muslim," he said. "Our criterion is simply secular democracy and moderate politics."
This is music to American ears.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state, recently met Rugova in Pristina and said the Kosovars "are not going to tolerate another five years of not knowing who they are, what country they live in and what their future is."
Translation: It's time to end the Serb veto over Kosovo.
A surprised Serb Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the Security Council he finds it "inconceivable" that Serbia would be forced to shrink its borders yet again.
But Serb nationalists — and their backers in the Orthodox Church as well as in Russia — have little choice. If Serbia is to atone for its murderous past and fulfill its hope of joining the European Union and normalizing its relations with the United States, Belgrade needs to act on two fronts: help capture Bosnian-Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, who have been allowed to elude arrest in an area about the size of Greater Toronto; negotiate the independence of Kosovo, after getting guarantees for the 100,000 Serb minority living among the 2 million ethnic Albanian Kosovars.
Rugova is right to reject the option of handing over Kosovo's Serb enclaves to Serbia. Or having the Kosovars join their ethnic cousins in neighbouring Albania.
"I oppose any change in the borders," he had told me. "We've had enough conflict over territory."
This is sensible. Ethnic minorities are so interspersed across the region that no tinkering with the borders can create ethnically pure states, not that we would want them anyway.
In neighbouring Macedonia, for example, it is the ethnic Albanians who are a minority and need state protection there.
In Bosnia, moves are afoot to end the ethnic silos of Croats, Muslims and Serbs. Under pressure from the European Union, an inter-ethnic police force is being created.
And Washington is working to replace the tripartite presidency (each group has its own president) with one head of state.
Kosovo also has a chance to lead the way in protecting its smaller minority of Roma, whose mistreatment across Eastern Europe remains a scandal.
Kosovo's biggest challenge is economic, dating back to the discrimination that had made it Yugoslavia's poorest part.
For the last six years, it has been sustained by the $1.3 billion a year international aid, plus the nearly $400 million a year sent by the 200,000 Kosovar diaspora (mostly in Germany and Switzerland, and about 30,000 in the United States).
The World Bank estimates that about 37 per cent of Kosovars live on $1.75 a day. More than 40 per cent are unemployed. This has proven a boon to organized crime.
"You cannot have a stable economy with an unstable political situation," Skender Hyseni, chief political adviser to Rugova, told me over the phone from Pristina. "The only viable and sustainable solution is independence."
Anything less would neither work nor be just.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday.