EUROPE STILL has a Balkans problem. This is the message to take away from the victory of former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci's party in Saturday's parliamentary elections in Kosovo - balloting that was boycotted by the 10 percent of Kosovo's population who are Serbs.
The UN-supervised region is officially part of Serbia. But ever since NATO went to war in 1999 to force Slobodan Milosevic to end his ethnic cleansing of Albanian villages in Kosovo, the region's Albanian majority have set their sights on separation from Serbia. Recently, American, Russian, and European mediators have been trying to craft a formula for autonomy or phased independence that would be acceptable both to Serbia and the Albanian Kosovar government.
The mediators are due to report to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by that date, and Thaci has threatened to declare independence unilaterally if they do not recommend independence for Kosovo. But any such unilateral action could set off instability across the Balkans and beyond.
While 20 of the EU's 27 members favor independence for Kosovo, nearly all dread a unilateral declaration. That prospect conjures up memories of Europe's careless acceptance of declarations of independence from Yugoslavia by Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia in the early 1990s. Those acts ushered in horrific wars and crimes against humanity.
A unilateral lunge for independence by Kosovo could spur Serbs in Bosnia and Herzogovina - half that country's population - to follow suit. And Kremlin warnings against the imposition of any Kosovo formula not acceptable to Serbia raises the specter of Russian backing for independence movements in Georgia, Moldova, and even Ukraine. This would be a prescription for armed conflict around the periphery of Europe.
Some European diplomats also worry about the United Nations carving new countries out of older countries' provinces. They recognize that separatist reflexes persist in regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country. Even the Flemish and Walloon populations of tiny Belgium may want a nationalist divorce.
The Kosovo majority's impatience for independence is understandable, particularly since it has been subjected to a corrupt and inefficient UN tutelage. But the European, American, and Russian mediators should keep Serbia and the Kosovars at the negotiating table as long as it takes to hammer out a resolution to which both sides agree.
This may mean incorporating the Serbian-populated area of Kosovo into Serbia proper, along with Serbian monasteries and holy sites. It may entail minor population transfers. But whatever the eventual solution, it should be accepted by the two peoples and not imposed by outsiders.