The bloody escalation at the Jarinje border post between Serbia and Kosovo reveals yet again that, even after the intervention of the international community 12 years ago and investments worth billions, the western Balkans region hasn't found peace with itself -- not by a long shot.
Active mines still litter some of the region's former battlefields, and there is the continual risk that wounds that have only recently closed could tear open again.
In that respect, determining who provoked the latest acts of violence is of secondary importance. The Serbian minority in northern Kosovo has never accepted the fact that they may once have lived in a Serbian province, but their home is now part of a country that is 90-percent controlled by ethnic Albanians and which has been recognized by 80 countries since its declaration of independence, including the lion's share of European Union member states. With the support of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, northern Kosovo has remained a sort of gray area in recent years in which Serbians have carried on with their lives and continued to maintain deep ties with neighboring Serbia -- from the nearby border all the way to Belgrade.
But now the government of Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, himself something of a dubious provocateur, no longer wants to accept that status quo. The attempt by special forces of the Kosovo police to occupy the border posts in a surprise coup, in order to carry out customs controls in the future, triggered the latest skirmish.
Previously, the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, which had been taking place under EU mediation since March, had stalled. Belgrade cancelled a meeting that was supposed to address the issue of recognizing Kosovo's customs stamp. The Serbs fear that this would be tantamount to officially recognizing Kosovo as an independent country.
Serbs Must Come to Terms with New Political Reality
In the long term, however, Serbians will have to come to terms with the new political reality. Following the extradition of the last remaining fugitive war crimes suspects -- Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic -- to the United Nations tribunal in The Hague, Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade is expecting Brussels to clear the way for his country to become an official candidate for EU membership in December. But one condition for that is the ability to show tangible progress in establishing positive relations with Serbia's neighbors, including Kosovo, where the EU currently has its most important mission in the region.
The most difficult issue -- that of the future status of the Serbian enclave in northern Kosovo -- will likely only be addressed after the start of Serbia's EU accession negotiations. They will be highly contentious, too, because any cession of territory, as envisioned by the Serbians, could also spark a chain reaction between Bosnia and Macedonia and once again open up a Pandora's box that could lead to collective paranoia, new ethnic tensions and expulsions. The veneer of civilization in the western Balkans remains very thin, and extremist rabble-rousers can still be found in droves.
Twelve years after the NATO intervention during the Kosovo War, it is clear that it was an historical mistake on the part of the European Union not to have integrated all of Yugoslavia's successor states in one fell swoop after the wars of succession. Until all the countries in the Balkans become EU member states, they will remain Europe's Achilles' heel.