NEW YORK — Confronting the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, former EU Council President Jacques Poos made his famous but now derided statement: “This is the hour of Europe not the hour of the Americans.”

What the European Union learned from the subsequent four years of Balkan disasters under its management is now being tested by another major turning point and potential crisis — when and how Kosovo is to become independent. Once again, Europe’s role may well prove decisive.

The decision on Kosovo may not imply the prospect of renewed large-scale conflict, but it does raise serious questions for Europe’s relations with Russia and the United States, as well as for stability throughout the Balkans. While the U.S. has a major stake in the outcome, EU countries obviously have the most significant interests in the region, and perhaps this time they will assume a corresponding leadership role.

For at least the next two months, the United Nations Security Council will debate a blueprint for Kosovo’s future, arduously worked out during a year of “negotiations” between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina by U.N. envoy and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. The blueprint provides for Kosovo’s “supervised independence,” maximum protection for Serb and other minorities, and a supervisory role for the EU. Ahtisaari’s proposal is an acknowledgment that no agreement between the parties is possible, and that there is no constructive alternative to Kosovo’s independence.

Together with the U.S., the EU collectively has rallied around the Ahtisaari proposal. But individually, a number of European countries — Spain, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia and Austria — are skeptical or negative toward Kosovo independence, which raises profound questions about the EU’s resolve.

Meanwhile, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is waging a tireless and remarkably effective diplomatic campaign denouncing both Ahtisaari and his proposal. He has strengthened the position of many in Europe and elsewhere who are skeptical of challenging a country’s territorial integrity or who still claim to believe in a negotiated settlement.

More worrisome is the current uncertainty about whether a shaky Europe will stand up to Russia, upon which Serbia depends to maintain sovereignty over Kosovo. So far, the Kremlin has resolutely stated that it will accept only a settlement agreed to by both parties, in effect endorsing Serbia’s position.

While conveying the possibility of a veto, Russia’s current strategy is to delay a Security Council vote as long as possible by prompting a new fact-finding mission to Kosovo, which will most likely be followed by renewed insistence on another effort to negotiate a settlement.

Serbia welcomes delay in the hope that this will stimulate violence by frustrated Kosovars, thereby increasing Europe’s opposition to independence and bolstering Serbia’s dedication to maintaining the status quo, or, as a last resort, to partitioning Kosovo.

Some European countries apparently believe that they can maintain an EU consensus in support of Ahtisaari’s plan but allow Russian foot-dragging on the grounds that delay is not unreasonable and something better may turn up with additional negotiations. But, by adopting such a stance, they thwart their own envoy and may well stimulate the violence they profess to abhor.

History offers little consolation. The EU’s handling of relations with Serbia in the past only encouraged intransigence. Instead of repeatedly making clear that Kosovo independence is an indispensable requirement for EU membership — so important to Serbia’s modernization and Balkan stability — EU leaders like Javier Solana laud Kostunica as a great democratic leader. They relentlessly but unsuccessfully pressured Montenegro’s leaders to remain in a dysfunctional union with Serbia, condoned Kostunica’s dubious 2006 referendum on a new constitution enshrining Kosovo as a part of Serbia, and weakened demands for Serbia’s cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

Ahtisaari’s proposal will depend on EU solidarity and persistence, coupled with strong American support, to manage the vicissitudes of U.N. debate, lobby skeptical nonpermanent Security Council members, such as Indonesia and South Africa, and persuade Russia to abstain rather than exercise its veto.

Many believe that Russia will not risk its relations with Europe and the U.S., ultimately abstaining if Western countries hold firm. But Russia appears to be in a Gaullist mood, and has other outstanding issues causing friction with the U.S. and Europe.

Putin’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s Russia, when the West could simply shunt aside Russian concerns. Europe is vulnerable on many fronts, particularly in view of its dependence on Russian energy, while America’s weakened presidency has diminished U.S. influence in Russia.

If Russia does veto the Ahtisaari plan, the EU’s united facade will likely fracture, with many European countries refusing either to join the U.S. in recognizing an independent Kosovo without the U.N.’s blessing or to send a supervisory mission there. That would open a new and tumultuous era in the Balkans, with more than Kosovo at stake.

Indeed, with the U.N. and the Western alliance in disarray, the region could fall victim to further Russian policy mischief.

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