(This column by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright first appeared in The Washington Times March 14 and is in the public domain, no copyright restrictions.)
By Madeleine K. Albright
The United States wants a Europe that is united and strong, where democratic practices are deeply rooted and wars simply do not happen. Now, more than ever, that kind of Europe exists. But there remains a missing piece, in the Continent's southeast corner. And there, last year in Kosovo, we took a decisive stand.
Those who still question whether what we did in Kosovo was right should consider what would have happened if we had sat back and tolerated what was so clearly wrong.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees would still be huddled in camps throughout Southeast Europe. In Kosovo itself, many thousands more would be living in terror, without homes, naked to the winter's cold. And the message that ethnic cleansing pays would have spread like a galloping virus through the region.
Instead, because of NATO, the large-scale violence has ended; the vast majority of displaced have returned; rebuilding has begun; and we have conveyed a powerful message that ethnic cleansing is not only wrong, but also self-defeating -- for those who practice it will be isolated and opposed.
We did what was necessary to prevail in conflict. Now we must do what it takes to prevail in peace, understanding that this will not occur in one great leap, but rather step by step.
I am aware that some are pointing to the recent violence in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica and saying war is back and peace in the region is not possible.
My response is threefold:
-- First, we should not allow the problems in one flashpoint to cause us to lose sight of larger progress. The truth is that KFOR has seen a steady decline in violence and crime in Kosovo. A Joint Administrative Council has been established. The KLA has met its commitment to demobilize. Planning for municipal elections is under way. And in most parts of Kosovo, morale is high.
-- Second, we should remember that this region is a magnet for the prophets of doom and gloom. A few years ago, we were told that tensions in the divided Bosnian town of Brcko would surely derail implementation of the Dayton Accords. Those predictions were wrong.
-- Third, we must be clear about our expectations and aims. After all that has happened, we do not expect the rival communities in Kosovo to immediately join hands and start singing folk songs. We do insist they stop killing each other. The spirit of tolerance and inter-ethnic cooperation will take longer to achieve. But that has begun to develop in Bosnia, and it will happen in Kosovo.
Despite key differences, the strategy being employed by the U.N. and KFOR bears some resemblance to the one employed earlier in Bosnia. We are giving the hardest problems our top priority. In Bosnia, the hardest problem was Brcko. In Kosovo, it is Mitrovica.
It is there that the international community is concentrating resources, beefing up security, striving to isolate the extremists on both sides and trying to give cooler heads the help they need to prevail.
Again, we are not asking either side to forget legitimate grievances. We are saying no grievance can be redressed by shooting up a U.N. bus or driving a grandmother from her home.
The only practical way for ethnic Serbs and Albanians alike to achieve their legitimate aims is to work with and through the international community and to participate in the joint structures being created. This is how representative community control can be established, civilians on all sides made safe and the displaced enabled to come home.
I do not, however, underestimate the precarious nature of the situation in Mitrovica. Certainly, there is a danger of further violence.
There are extremists on both sides, and those in the ethnic Albanian community who perpetrate crimes against Serbs and other minorities deserve strong condemnation and are doing a profound disservice to the aspirations of their people.
The government in Belgrade is promoting confrontation and trying to undermine the prospects for ethnic co-existence. The policies of that government over the past decade have sparked the rise of extremism on all sides of the ethnic divide; and its policies still fan the flames.
International efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo have banked the fires of intolerance, but they will not be extinguished until a democratic government has replaced the current regime in Belgrade.
Slovenia today is free. Macedonia recently experienced a democratic transfer of power. Bosnia has held fair, competitive elections at every level. Montenegro has democratic leadership. And last month's elections in Croatia marked a national U-turn away from extremism and toward inter-ethnic tolerance and integration with the West.
The people of Serbia would make a similar choice if given the chance to do so. Today, many Serbs are actively seeking that opportunity. They deserve -- and they should have -- our full support.
After all, throughout history, people struggling to establish democracy in their own countries have benefited from the solidarity of others.
(Madeleine K. Albright is the U.S. Secretary of State.)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: usinfo.state.gov)