New York -- The West has been involved in the Balkans for a full decade now. It all started with an international summit convened by the United Nations and European Union in London in August 1992. The shelling, the sniping and the concentration camps became worse until peace was imposed from outside. Now it is clear that, without an exit strategy, there will be no end to the international community's involvement in the Balkans.
Before exiting it will be important to stabilize the region and resolve potentially explosive issues, starting with Kosovo's political status. In order to do this the international community must be honest with its interlocutors; clear about its goals; and resolute in implementing policies which take into account the interests of all parties.
Europe must take the lead in starting to think about an exit strategy. Diplomats from Britain, Germany and France command protectorates in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The EU Commission also pays the lion's share of costs for reconstruction and development.
But ultimately, Europe must think of exiting the Balkans in order to embrace the region as a partner, not as a protectorate. Every Balkan state aspires to a peaceful and prosperous future as part of Europe. But they will not likely join the EU until Kosovo ceases to be a flash point where violence could erupt anew.
Though Kosovo is the heartland of historic Serbia, for many generations the majority population has been overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian. Slobodan Milosevic's murderous effort to ethnically cleanse the province destroyed the last vestiges of Serbia's moral claim to it. Moreover, today Belgrade's pro-reform political leaders know full well, and privately acknowledge, that Kosovo has been lost. Their conundrum and the international community's challenge are to answer the questions: How, when and at what cost will Kosovo become independent?
To make Kosovo's eventual independence more palatable to Serbian politicians, EU mediators should clearly indicate their intention to steward a process that would culminate with a final decision on Kosovo's independence. Decision-making on Kosovo's status should have a timetable for action with well-defined milestones, so everyone would know what to expect. This process, I might add, would also be healthy for the whole region, given that it would eliminate Kosovo as a potential center for gun running or as a haven for rebels.
Though Kosovars want immediate independence, it would be a mistake to move precipitously. The wounds of war are still too deep. It is better to provide an initial cooling off period and help Serbs and ethnic Albanians develop a modus vivendi paving the way for acceptance of their separate fate. Resolving Kosovo would reduce the influence of irredentist forces in Serbia who still look to meddle in neighboring states. This period could also provide an opportunity to consolidate Macedonia's Ohrid Agreement, which disarmed ethnic Albanian rebels by promising more power-sharing between Slavs and Albanians.
As the protagonist of conflict in the 1990s, the burden for peacebuilding resides first and foremost with the Belgrade regime. It must fully comply with arrest and extradition procedures of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. It should also respect all commitments required by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Support for Slavic paramilitaries in Macedonia and Kosovo's Mitrovica region should be suspended and shadowy elements in the security sector brought under civilian control.
But the onus for confidence building does not reside solely with the Serbs throughout the Balkans. If Kosovars ever want independence, they must show they are ready for self-rule. They can do this by guaranteeing security for all communities and allowing ethnic Serbs to return to their homes, practice their religion and participate politically and culturally in the life of the nation.
In addition, Albanian factions and political parties must overcome their parochial differences. Kosovar leaders should work with the U.N. Mission in Kosovo to develop a sound institutional and legal basis for a market economy and regional economic integration. Steps are also needed to crack down on organized crime, which is eroding the rule of law in Kosovo and throughout the region.
Only when these measures are adopted should the EU proceed with negotiations on Kosovo's political status. As called for in UN Security Council Resolution 1244, talks would focus on a UN supervised popular referendum. This plebiscite must not, however, be imposed on Belgrade.
To influence the Serbians' behavior the West should organize a compensation fund for Yugoslavia, to be disbursed over several years. As difficult as this is to accept in principle, the "buy-out" makes economic sense. The cost of a deal would be far less than the cumulative cots of a peacekeeping operation. This arrangement would provide the Belgrade regime with badly needed cash to rehabilitate Serbia's economy and consolidate its free market and democratic development.
To seal the deal, Russia and the U.S. would jointly sponsor a UN resolution supplanting UNSC 1244. The resolution would reaffirm the territorial integrity of other countries in the region and invite Kosovo to join the United Nations as a new member state.
Addressing the Kosovo question peacefully and through negotiations would be a watershed event marking unprecedented cooperation between great powers. It would also be a major success for the international community, and a triumph for European diplomacy.
Ten years ago, British Prime Minister John Major pledged Europe's leadership in peacemaking for the Balkans. Today European leaders are still mired in the region. Resolving Kosovo's status would promote common purpose between Serbs and Albanians. It would also help consolidate Serbia's democracy, preserve Bosnia's integrity and enhance Macedonia's multi-ethnicity.
Mr. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.