What the West says it wants in this region is stability, prosperity and unity with the rest of Europe. What the West is getting - and what its policies are partly responsible for - is turmoil, poverty and disunity.
Recent violence in Albania, and the daily street unrest in Serbia and Bulgaria, reflect the profound instability of a chronically misgoverned and disorderly area stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. Democracy and economic reform have yet to take strong root in a region plagued with social hardship, political corruption, organised crime and ethnic minority tensions. Common sense, and still fresh memories of the wars in former Yugoslavia, should underline the need for urgent and sustained Western involvement to prevent a disaster.
Yet over the next five months the eyes of Western policymakers will be fixed on a quite different part of the former Communist world - the "northern tier" of Central and Eastern Europe including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. It is an area whose economies are starting to flourish, whose political institutions are free and whose future prospects are generally bright.
At its Madrid summit in July, Nato will issue membership invitations to most or all of the northern tier states and, possibly, Romania. The main preoccupation of Western leaders is how to do this without triggering a crisis in relations with Russia, and without destabilising other Eastern European states whose applications will be politely put on hold.
It is not a question of denying the Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovenes the right to join Nato after their experiences at the hands of fascists and Communists. Yet the West has got its priorities seriously muddled: these countries face no military threat from Russia, and Europe's real crisis zones lie to the south, in the Balkans and the Aegean Sea. What sort of message does it send to Russian reformers (let alone nationalists or hardliners) when the West signals that it regards expansion of Nato as a more urgent issue than enlargement of the European Union?
Nato's intention is to admit most or all of the northern tier states by April 1999, the alliance's 50th birthday. But it will be astonishing if any of these states have joined the EU even three years later, such is the whingeing in Brussels and various national capitals about how difficult it will be to absorb their economies.
Back in 1989, when peaceful popular uprisings swept away the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, few people would have imagined that the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles would enjoy the security of the US nuclear umbrella by 1999 but would still be knocking beseechingly on the door of the EU. After all, one of the main benefits of the 1989 revolutions was that Europe could at last put butter before guns.
Putting Nato enlargement first might be a defensible strategy if there were a pressing security problem in the northern tier. But there is not. If anything, it is the process of expansion itself that is likely to create a security problem, by exposing the vulnerability of countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. Trapped between Nato's new member states to the west and Russia to the east, these countries with their substantial ethnic Russian minorities will suspect that, as so often in their modern history, security for some comes at the expense of insecurity for others.
However, the real culprit in this sorry business is not Nato but the EU. Nato's planned expansion is not inherently threatening to Russia. Given the right circumstances, it should go ahead.
However, practically all Russians regard Nato enlargement as something menacing. Their observations and instincts tell them that the West seems more interested in Central and Eastern Europe from a military than an economic point of view. Russian hostility to Nato's expansion would be less intense if the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles were already EU members and Nato had already signed its partnership treaty with Moscow.
The EU, however, has fallen way behind. More than seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has yet to open formal accession negotiations with a single former Communist state.
Nor has the EU figured out how to reform its agricultural and structural funds policies so that the Central and Eastern Europeans can join without busting the EU budget. There is even a suspicion that poorer member states which benefit from EU aid programmes, such as the Mediterranean countries and Ireland, have no real interest in rapid EU enlargement, since it will undoubtedly mean a smaller share for them.
But it would be unfair to blame the "Club Med" states and the Irish alone. The British government is also at fault. Its stubborn, negative attitude at the EU's Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on revising the Maastricht treaty means that vital reforms needed to smooth the way for Eastern enlargement are being delayed. At the same time, it is difficult not to believe that the obsession of most EU states with launching monetary union on schedule in January 1999 is distracting attention from the question of admitting the Central and Eastern Europeans.
The overall effect could hardly be worse. On the one hand, the West is neglecting South-eastern Europe, the one part of the continent where real trouble is brewing. On the other hand, it is about to stir up trouble in north-eastern Europe by expanding Nato before the EU. Truly, someone should forgive our governments, for they know not what they do.Reuse content