Ramush Haradinaj, who resigned as Kosovo’s prime minister on March 8, had been expecting his indictment for alleged war crimes for almost three months. American and European diplomats spent much of that time coaxing him to surrender voluntarily when the announcement was made. “He started to wobble a bit a couple of weeks before it was made public, but obviously we got over it,” one of them told me in Belgrade.

International representatives put so much effort into persuading Haradinaj to go quietly because they were terrified that Kosovar Albanians might react by going on a rampage as they did in March 2004, almost bringing UNMIK, the United Nations administration that runs the province, to its knees. And boy, did the diplomats let their relief show. “Thanks to Ramush Haradinaj’s dynamic leadership, strong commitment and vision,” gushed Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of UNMIK, “Kosovo is today closer than ever before to achieving its aspirations in settling its future status. Personally, I am saddened to no longer be working with a close partner and friend.” There was some concern in European capitals that Jessen-Petersen had gone over the top. “After all,” said a diplomat in Belgrade, “let’s not forget that Haradinaj has been indicted for committing the foulest of crimes.”

Yet Jessen-Petersen’s passionate outburst is understandable. International control over Kosovo is fragile. KFOR, the NATO-led force of 18,000 peacekeepers, is designed to prevent an unauthorized return of the Serbian military into the province; as it proved last March, it has no capacity to pacify tens of thousands of testosterone-driven young Albanians who are fed up with being unemployed and having no political control over their lives.

I have spent the past six years watching glumly as the Balkans slide back toward catastrophe as if in slow motion. Only a small minority of the actors involved want this outcome; many are breaking their backs to stop it from happening. But despite their efforts, three factors are driving the region toward, at best, damaging civil unrest and, at worst, a revival of armed conflict: a steady, severe economic crisis; the persistence of weak states caught up in an unholy constitutional tangle; and profound incompetence on the part of the international community.

Until the mess actually collapses into violence, there are real opportunities to halt the slide. But the countdown to disaster has already begun, and the region urgently requires the kind of political adroitness and élan that have been conspicuously absent over the past five years. The Balkans provide the clearest proof that Western military intervention, whether liberal or illiberal, is a complete waste of time, money and life if it is not accompanied by a coherent, long-term attempt to address the root causes of instability after hostilities have ceased. But as Western Europe and the United States are learning, it’s easy to defeat small countries with limited military strength, and mind-bogglingly hard to create a working system of governance from the ashes of victory.

NATO supposedly dealt with the southern Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999 by going to war against Yugoslavia. (For those who have missed the past few episodes, what’s left of that country has been refashioned as Serbia and Montenegro, although nobody believes this latest incarnation will last for very long.) In the past five years Kosovo has become unrecognizable, but in a very recognizable way. Its crumbling roads, heaving under the weight of civilian and international military vehicles, are punctuated every half-mile by gas stations trading under different, perhaps unique, emblems: Kospetrol, Kosova Petrol, Djukagjini Inc., International Gas and Petrol, ShqipGas, etc. Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Lukoil (the Russian company ubiquitous elsewhere in the Balkans) are absent–a blow, perhaps, against the multinational giants and in favor of the small trader. Er, not quite.

Peppered between the gas stations are hotels, motels and restaurants offering countless beds to phantom tourists and kebabs, delicious cheese burek and Ohrid trout to ghostly foodies. Except for a few chic eateries in the main urban areas, these establishments are not going concerns but the long-term investment bolt-holes of corrupt politicians and organized criminal syndicates who have mountains of cash but nothing to do with it. The opprobrium that used to be hurled at Balkan people because of their apparent predilection for killing their neighbors is now drawn by their apparent tolerance for, and widespread indulgence in, organized criminal activities–drug dealing, trafficking of women and cigarette smuggling, to name but a few of the most popular. The Kosovars are seen as key movers in all these industries.

Before we condemn, let us consider the economic environment developed for the people of Kosovo by the combined might of the UN, the European Union and KFOR. (The people of Kosovo, whether Serb or Albanian, have no control of economic policy.) Two statistics stand out. First, Kosovo is the only territory in Europe that has recorded a negative growth rate each year since 2002. (Its sole competitor is the unrecognized breakaway republic of Transdniestria in Moldova, whose decline can be attributed to the emigration of about half its population in the past decade.) Second, overall unemployment stands at 50 percent, while youth unemployment runs at 70 percent. Every year 30,000-40,000 young Kosovars enter a nonexistent job market. Yet Kosovo is almost completely surrounded, both economically and culturally, by the affluence of the EU. If a young Kosovar, struggling to raise children and look after elderly parents, is offered $700 (well over twice a ministerial salary in Kosovo’s provisional government) to lead a donkey packed with cigarettes over the border to Montenegro, will he hesitate because of the moral implications of the act?

This decline, and the dysfunctional mafia economy it has precipitated, is largely the consequence of an utterly botched privatization strategy executed by the EU via the inefficient and corrupt Kosovo Trust Agency, which is staffed and run by Western civil servants. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which details the limbo in which Kosovo must live, most political decisions at all levels of government are reserved for the UN’s Special Representative in Pristina and his bureaucracy, while the powers of the provisional government and the municipalities are carefully restricted.

Stirred into this paralyzing brew are the Serbs’ and Albanians’ antithetical aspirations for the province, and the grim conditions in which the Serb minority in Kosovo lives. Resolution 1244 stipulates that the province is part of Serbia under the temporary aegis of the UN, until such time as all parties happily work out Kosovo’s long-term constitutional future. For the Albanians, who currently make up some 90 percent of the population, independence is the only acceptable solution. (Albanian nationalists who seek union with the motherland are not to be underestimated, but they form a minority in Kosovo’s political spectrum; Albanians from Albania openly oppose the idea. The international community is adamant that an independent Kosovo would not be permitted to form a political union with either Albania or the Albanian-dominated parts of Macedonia.) Most of Serbia’s political spectrum concedes the possibility of advanced autonomy for Kosovo, whereby ultimate sovereignty (including foreign and defense policy) would rest in Belgrade. They would also demand self-governance for Serb-populated zones in the province.

Although in public the chancelleries of Europe and America insist that the so-called “final status” of Kosovo must wait until the Kosovars have achieved acceptable political standards (code for decent treatment of the Serb minority), in private all now more or less agree that Kosovo must become independent. Even Russia, Serbia’s supposed staunch ally, shows no real interest in blocking Kosovo’s statehood beyond rhetorical bluster. Some quarters even advocate independence regardless of the views of Kosovo’s Serbs or Serbia. Crudely paraphrased, the most recent report of the International Crisis Group, an influential Brussels-based think tank, calls for independence for Kosovo with Serbia’s approval, but if the Serbs don’t like it, screw them.

Attractive though this solution may seem to some people, it will not work. Serbia is the key regional power and the main transit route for goods from the region to the rest of Europe, and for goods from northern Europe to the Middle East. If Kosovo becomes independent without Serbian approval, the prospects for a stable Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia are slim, as Serbian influence in these countries is almost certain to turn malign. Furthermore, the 100,000 Serbs still in the province will probably decamp to southern Serbia. Even this might be sustainable were it not that tens of thousands of Albanians live there under the rules of a very decent but fragile peace deal negotiated for the region in May 2001. None of these eventualities would benefit a newly independent Kosovo, which will be characterized, above all else, by economic weakness.

In public, all Serbian leaders rule out independence. In private, most members of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s governing coalition, along with the Democratic Party of his rival, President Boris Tadic, concede that the loss of Kosovo is more or less inevitable. But if they are to transform their private assessment into public reality, they need a serious incentive. At the moment, it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

The EU possesses the very incentive required to smooth Kosovo’s transition from a failing protectorate to an independent state free from the seeds of future conflict. If the EU were to suggest fast-tracking Serbia for EU membership, as it has done for Croatia, Serbia’s leaders would have a real argument with which to convince the public that Kosovo’s independence is not the worst of the many depressing options open to their country.

Unfortunately, creative policies for the Balkans have rarely issued from the EU or the United States. Furthermore, the political process is seriously hampered by the activities of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and its chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte. Throughout her tenure, del Ponte has maintained that her role is solely judicial, not political. And yet she holds a veto on the progress of EU accession negotiations, which affords her immense political influence. It is not an influence that generally contributes to stability.

Haradinaj, just 36 years old, is the first leading Kosovar Albanian to be indicted by the tribunal. He heads the third-largest political party in the province, the AAK, and is seen as the chief rival of another young and very energetic Kosovo politician, Hashim Thaci, who heads the second-largest party, the PDK. Haradinaj’s main power base is the west of the province. Elsewhere his appeal is limited but growing. He did not win a popular vote but secured the office of prime minister after last October’s elections because the AAK held the balance of power. Jessen-Petersen’s assessment of Haradinaj’s political ability is probably fair: Since then he has injected some real dynamism into the political process.

Haradinaj’s trip to The Hague (which is likely to last many years) coincides with several other surrenders to the ICTY that are also significant but have not received media attention in the West. Ten days before Haradinaj surrendered, Rasim Delic, the former chief of the Bosnian Army, who had earlier given himself up, appeared in court for the first time to hear the war crimes charges leveled against him. Then Momcilo Perisic, onetime head of the Yugoslav army, turned himself in; it is expected that Belgrade will hand over two other main suspects in the hope that this will move forward its tortured EU accession talks. Meanwhile, the EU told Croatia that unless it handed over its most wanted suspect, Ante Gotovina, by March 16 it would not be allowed to start final accession negotiations. Sure enough, the EU held firm and snatched the holy grail of final accession from the hands of the Croatian government after the deadline. This is a catastrophic blow to Zagreb–and one that some EU governments are unhappy about–as EU membership for Croatia is regarded as critical to the stability of the region. In the end, however, the EU concluded understandably that it would lose all political purchase on Serbia if it were to allow Gotovina through the net while insisting on Ratko Mladic et al. from Belgrade as a condition of progress in EU talks.

For all its destabilizing effects, the ICTY is a political reality, and for governments in the former Yugoslavia to resist its mandate is futile and self-defeating, and damaging to their long-term interests. The EU and the United States are exerting maximum pressure on all countries and territories in the region to comply with the ICTY in order to neutralize as soon as possible the negative impact of the demands for indictees to be handed over on the political process of reconciliation. This is because the crisis in the region is set to come to a head this summer. When the UN launched its flaccid negotiation process for Kosovo two years ago under the slogan “Standards Before Status,” summer 2005 was set as the target for final-status talks to begin. If that deadline is not met, then KFOR, the international military force, is likely to face real difficulties. The last time Albanian frustration at the apparent lack of progress exploded was in March 2004, when the resentment of young Albanian males led to several days of province-wide mob rioting. The initial targets were Serbs, but the rioters also destroyed vehicles, buildings and other assets belonging to the UN and KFOR. All the international actors know that a repeat of this on a wider scale is a real possibility. If it were to happen again in the next year, the southern Balkans could no longer be at peace.