PRAGUE — Serbia’s long tragedy looks like it is coming to an end. The death of Slobodan Milosevic has just been followed by Montenegro’s referendum on independence. Independence for Kosovo, too, is inching closer.

The wars of the Yugoslav succession have not only been a trial for the peoples of that disintegrated country; they also raised huge questions about the exercise of international justice.

Do international tribunals of the sort Milosevic faced before his death promote or postpone serious self-reflection and reconciliation in damaged societies? Do they strengthen or undermine the political stability needed to rebuild wrecked communities and shattered economies?

The evidence on these questions is mixed. Indeed, the record of the International War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in The Hague, may be instructive in judging the credibility of the strategy of using such trials as part of the effort to end civil and other wars. In 13 years, the ICTY, with 1,200 employees, spent roughly $1.25 billion to convict only a few dozen war criminals.

Moreover, whereas members of all ethnic groups committed crimes, in its first years, the ICTY indicted and prosecuted far more Serbs than others, fueling a perception, even among opponents of Milosevic’s regime, that the tribunal was political and anti-Serbian.

We may regret that Milosevic’s own trial ended without a conclusion. But a conviction only of Milosevic, however justified, without parallel penalties for his Croat, Bosnian and Kosovo-Albanian counterparts would hardly have contributed to serious self-reflection within the post-Yugoslav nations.

To be sure, the arrest of Gen. Ante Gotovina, adored by many Croats as a hero, but responsible for the brutal expulsion of a quarter-million Serbs from Croatia and northwest Bosnia — the biggest ethnic cleansing in Europe since World War II — improves the ICTY’s standing. But Milosevic’s Croatian and Bosnian counterparts, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic, respectively, remained unindicted when they died.

So, too, the main commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Ramush Haradinaj, the prime minister of Kosovo, was accused but later released from detention.

I have always been convinced that Milosevic should have been put on trial in Belgrade. After all, Milosevic’s critics and political rivals such as the journalist Slavko Curuvija and Milosevic’s former mentor, Ivan Stambolic, were assassinated by Serb police agents, who also tried three times to murder the opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. There was, moreover, ample evidence of corruption among Milosevic’s inner circle, including members of his immediate family.

Holding the trial in Belgrade might have served better to catalyze a sober examination of the past. The atmosphere was certainly favorable. The majority of Serbs hold Milosevic responsible for the decline of their society.

Even before his fall, the opposition controlled most big Serbian cities, and in 2000 he lost the election that he called to shore up his authority. The relatively small turnout at his funeral confirmed that only a minority of Serbs considers him a national hero.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Slovenia, the democratic transformation in the post-Yugoslav region remains uneasy. Wars, ethnic cleansing, embargoes and sanctions created not only psychological traumas, but also black markets, smuggling, large-scale corruption and de facto rule by mafias. The bombing of Serbia by NATO in 1999 heavily damaged its economy, with serious consequences for neighboring countries.

The definitive end of what remains of Yugoslavia may — at least today — pose no danger of war, but the Muslim Sandjak region will now be divided by state boundaries, and Albanian extremists, with their dreams of a Greater Albania, believe their influence in a separate Montenegro will be reinforced with a yes vote on independence.

Most Serbs and Croats in Bosnia believe that the best solution to the problems of that sad country would be to join the territories that they inhabit with their “mother” countries.

Then there is the unresolved status of Kosovo, where the Albanian majority demands independence, and extremists threaten to fight for it. As one Kosovo Liberation Army commander warned, “If we kill one KFOR soldier a day, these cowards will leave.”

With independence, the extremists would gain a territorial base from which to undermine Macedonia, southern Montenegro, and southern Serbia, jeopardizing stability in the entire region.

Serbia is offering Kosovo the formula “less than independence, more than autonomy.” It demands security guarantees for the Serbian minority and cultural monuments, as well as control of the borders with Albania and Macedonia to stop traffic in arms, drugs and women, and to prevent the use of Kosovo by Albanian extremists.

Any resolution of Kosovo’s status is problematic, but the international community should not repeat old mistakes. In 1991, the principle that only a politically negotiated division of Yugoslavia would be recognized was abandoned. Now, as then, a change of boundaries without the consent of all concerned parties would not only violate international law, but could also lead to violence.

The international community must not be gulled into thinking that war-crime trials marginalize, rather than mobilize, extremists and nationalists. Pressure on Croatia and Serbia to arrest and hand over suspects — a condition of EU accession negotiations — has yielded several extraditions and may result in more. But further trials alone are unlikely to bring about the long-term settlements that the region’s fragile states need in order to ensure stability and democratic development. The people of the Balkans should feel that the EU offers them political and economic support. They deserve it.

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