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PRAGUE — On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo declared its independence and has so far been recognized by more than 50 countries representing close to 60 percent of the world’s economic power. Interethnic violence — which many feared — has largely been avoided and the mass exodus of Serbs that some also predicted has not occurred.

The Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (the so-called Ahtisaari Plan), which provides for international supervision of Kosovo’s independence, is gradually being implemented. A large civilian European Union mission has been deployed.

Unfortunately, however, we still cannot turn the page on this pernicious conflict, which has led to so much tragedy and has been a cause of instability in the Balkans for far too long. The issue will not go away, because Serbia persists in its rejection of the new reality, and is doing everything in its power to prevent normalization.

On orders from Serbia’s government, Kosovo Serbs, who represent some 5 percent of the population, refuse to cooperate with Kosovo’s government and the EU mission. In doing so — and this is the irony of the matter — Serbs themselves are preventing the early implementation of the wide-ranging community rights foreseen in the Ahtisaari Plan, which would bring to them a normal and secure life.

On the international level, Serbia — with strong support from Russia — is actively engaged in blocking Kosovo’s accession to the United Nations and other global or regional organizations.

It is difficult to comprehend what Serbia aims to achieve. Nobody will deny that, for any state, being separated from part of its territory is a painful matter — even if a different ethnic group largely populates that territory. Still, there are examples in recent history when this has been achieved in a consensual manner.

In the case of Kosovo, after the Milosevic regime’s brutal behavior in the 1990s — including repression, massive human rights violations and large-scale expulsions of Kosovo Albanians — prompted NATO to intervene and the U.N. to take over the country’s administration, return to Serbian rule became unthinkable.

Serbia’s democratic leaders of today must understand that the loss of Kosovo — although not their doing — is an irreversible reality with which they must come to terms.

All they can achieve with their current policy of rejection is to delay the much-needed stabilization of the region following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and to make life miserable for Kosovo and its people. Would it not be wiser to give a helping hand to the infant state, turning hostility into friendship and thus securing the future presence of Serbs in Kosovo?

Kosovo is, first of all, a European problem, and the EU has the primary responsibility to turn it into a success story. Regrettably, the Union’s inability to agree on a common policy has not only weakened its role on the international level, but has also become a major obstacle to determined action in the country itself.

The five member states that continue to withhold recognition of Kosovo should be aware that their stance encourages those who reject the EU mission any cooperation and impede its work. It also makes it infinitely more difficult for moderate forces in Serbia to adjust to the new situation.

Only a unified EU position, combined with the knowledge that EU accession for Serbia is unthinkable as long as this conflict has not been fully resolved, may over time lead to a change of attitude on the part of both ordinary Serbs and their government. Kosovo, for its part, needs a clear European perspective and unhesitating help to meet the daunting challenges it is facing. At the moment, both are missing.

Nobody should be misled by the relative calm now prevailing in Kosovo. The Balkans’ recent tragedies have shown that problems that remain unresolved sooner or later turn into open conflict, and that the costs become unbearable for all. There is no time for complacency. Those concerned should take to heart what U.S. President Barack Obama said in his inaugural speech: “Our time for standing pat, for protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.”

Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008; Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador, is chairman of the Munich Conference on Security; Albert Rohan, a former secretary general of Austria’s Foreign Ministry, was deputy U.N. special envoy for the final status negotiations for Kosovo. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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