It voted to strike out on its own, achieving independence without a drop of blood spilled. But the voluntary defection of a nation whose majority population shares bloodlines, language and the Christian Orthodox religion with most Serbs was a huge psychological blow in Belgrade, where retro-nationalism is back in style. Now it all comes down to Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia whose people overwhelmingly favor an independence that its legal owner, Serbia, declines to grant. The international community has made little secret of its intention to break this logjam with a deciding vote for the ethnic Albanians who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's populace and want out. There are four serious problems with this approach. First, it downgrades negotiations and makes the wishes of the affected people secondary to those of outsiders fed up with having to patrol and rule Kosovo themselves. Since a 1999 NATO air war wrested control of Kosovo from Serbian forces, NATO and U.S. troops have patrolled and the United Nations has ruled. Any imposed solution is likely to displease all sides. Second, it rewards lawlessness and ethnic retribution. The U.N. pretends security problems are history, but the reprisal murders of ethnic Serbs continue - the latest a 68-year-old man shot in his home. Ethnic Albanian police were attacked recently simply because they were patrolling with ethnic Serbs. Independence talks were supposed to follow ethnic reconciliation, not precede them. The likely outcome will be another ethnic exodus and violent reprisals. Third is the gleeful reaction from Moscow. Vladimir Putin has boasted about how he plans to cite Kosovo's independence as a precedent for the secession of pro-Russian, Christian ethnic enclaves in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. This is stoking fears about recharged independence movements from the Catalans and Basques in Spain to the Uighurs in China. Finally and most significantly will be the erosion of the bedrock principle of territorial sovereignty enshrined in the U.N. charter. The United Nations probably will have to approve any solution imposed on Serbia - putting it in the position of approving the abrogation of territorial sovereignty of a member nation. No wonder former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the U.N. emissary trying to negotiate a way out of the Kosovo mess, reportedly is pressing to delay a resolution of the situation into next year. Washington, tired of having U.S. troops tied down in Kosovo, has made little secret that it wants forward movement by year's end. Artificial deadlines in this case are not helpful, particularly given the potential of this final slicing up of Serbia to propel ultranationalists into power. Serbia's reformers have found and returned the bodies of 836 murdered Kosovo Albanians hidden in mass graves around Serbia - the awful legacy of the most recent war. But more than 2,000 people are still missing from the Kosovo conflict, representing most ethnic groups in the formerly multiethnic province. Reconciliation and face-to-face talks are the best way to cure the pain of these deaths - not an imposed solution that would violate core tenets of international law and simply propel another cycle of ethnic repressions and separation.
The drubbing that Serbia and Montene gro's combined soccer team took in the World Cup last month is a metaphor for what's happening to the final remnants of the former Yugoslavia. The last chapters of Yugoslavia's end are being written in political backrooms instead of on the battlefield, but the final slice-up could still trigger a return to nationalist violence if solutions are forced on the region. In May, the tiny, mountainous republic of Montenegro took the democratic option.