Gianfranco Fini International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, JANUARY 16, 2006
ROME The coming year promises to be marked by delicate phases that could be decisive for the future of the Balkans. On an official visit to the area a few weeks ago, I registered concerns of a possible flare-up in tensions that are anything but dormant, together with sincere, widespread hopes that the painful experiences of the past can be consigned, once and for all, to history.
The main road to a lasting settlement in the Balkans passes through Kosovo. The start-up of the Kosovo status negotiations, thanks to the UN secretary general's appointment of a special envoy, was brought about by a reality that the international community could no longer afford to ignore: that the post-conflict status quo is unsustainable and the "standards before status" formula is impracticable.
This does not mean, however, that its terms can be freely reversed. Tangible progress in these negotiations is inconceivable unless progress is made in the area of standards, particularly in connection with security, the return of refugees, respect for multi-ethnicity, and the protection of sacred places, which are a cultural heritage for the world and a sine qua non for the Serbian community.
Kosovars of Albanian ethnicity would thus be wrong to take the outcome of the negotiations for granted. But so would the Serbs, in both Pristina and Belgrade, were they to spurn them by refusing to come up with coherent, realistic and constructive proposals.
The linchpin of any new status is the prospect of integrating Kosovo into the European Union in the context of a gradual stabilization of the region. The moment will come when, in parallel to shuttle diplomacy, it will be opportune for Belgrade and Pristina to engage in direct dialogue, with the full involvement of the Kosovar Serbs.
In short, Pristina's European aspirations may be the most attractive way for the Kosovars themselves to give substance to a transition that promises to be lengthy. Its status could be based on a form of conditional independence within the framework of a European guarantee, while awaiting integration into the EU institutions.
A strong international military and administrative presence will of course have to be maintained to safeguard the specific mechanisms of economic support.
The same criterion holds true for Belgrade, which is grappling with the unknown of a referendum on the secession of Montenegro. Only a Serbia confident in its ability to achieve the goal of integration into the EU - and into NATO through the Partnership for Peace - will have sufficient incentives to contribute to the stabilization of the region.
In truth, the door of the EU should remain open for all the Balkan countries, through modalities to be established on a case-by-case basis. This is the best way to guarantee the success of the international community's endeavors.
A certain optimism is warranted in view of recent European Union measures long advocated by the Italian government. I am referring to the decisions to start negotiations on an EU association agreement with Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, as well as to recognize the accession candidacy status of Macedonia. These negotiations represent further starting points that will hopefully lead to positive conclusions of their own.
Europe has a specific imperative: to contribute substantially toward finding the best solution for the future of this region.
"In the Balkans the hour of Europe has come." So spoke the foreign minister of Luxembourg in the summer of 1991. We know all too well what came after this ambitious declaration: a decade of Balkan conflicts and of dismal European inertia.
Fifteen years later, Europe would be well advised to keep a safe distance from a rhetoric that is as loud as it is content-free and instead to take concrete steps toward offering real integration prospects to a region that is European in every way.
On the strength of its age-old friendship with the countries of the region and its significant involvement in the Balkans through policing actions, military presence and economic support, Italy is ready to do its part.
(Gianfranco Fini is the foreign minister of Italy.)