Leading article: A chance finally to resolve the Balkan wars

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The last war on European soil ended only six years ago when Nato drove Serbia's bloodstained army out of Kosovo. But already the Balkan wars seem to belong to another, nastier era, and attention has shifted, which is why the talks on Kosovo's final status, opening today in Vienna, are likely to get insufficient attention outside the region and even from the big powers in charge of them. If so, it is a pity, for Kosovo is one of the last pieces of a Balkan jigsaw that we must get right if the region is not to plague Europe in future by exporting its instability and poverty westwards.

At the moment, this tiny patch of land hangs in limbo, as it has done since 1999. Neither free nor unfree, it officially remains part of Serbia but in practice is run by the United Nations. People-traffickers and drug dealers thrive in the vacuum. What cannot thrive there is responsible government or business, for no one, not even the Albanian diaspora, wants to invest in a territory whose owners are unknown.

For Serbia, the Vienna talks promise to be agonising. Desperate not to lose their claim to the land they think of as their nation's cradle, their last hope is that China or Russia will somehow stop Kosovo's Albanian majority emerging from the talks with independence.

That is not a realistic expectation. As only 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo out of a population of 2 million, there aren't enough Serbs for Belgrade to make a good case for resuming control over Kosovo. So, independence it will have to be, albeit with conditions that guarantee that the Albanians respect the right of the Serbs to manage their own enclaves.

But if there is no democratic case for refusing Kosovo's independence, the big powers need to work harder than they have done on bringing Serbia into Europe's mainstream.

The reason why is geography. Serbia lies on the junction between the Balkans and Near East on one hand, and the European Union's southern border in Hungary on the other. Most crime networks trying to penetrate Europe from the south-east pass through there, which is why Brussels has been investing money and energy into beefing up Serbia's border regime.

If the Serbs retaliate against Europe over the loss of Kosovo by relaxing all vigilance against traffickers, at the same time as sealing the border around Kosovo, Europe will surely feel an impact, while Kosovo itself will remain miserable - independent, perhaps, but an unstable economic desert for all that.

With Romania and Bulgaria expected to join the EU next January, Europe cannot pretend this is someone else's backyard. It isn't. Wearisome and complicated as it is, fixing the Balkans is our business, and we need to keep our minds trained if we are to finish the job.

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