On Feb. 17, after almost a decade of legal limbo and two years of unsuccessful international mediation, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. The U.S. moved swiftly to recognize the new country, and nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians celebrated their long-awaited freedom, dancing in city streets, releasing fireworks and waving flags. Having bristled under Serbian rule and then U.N. administration, Kosovars were elated by the prospect of at last controlling their own affairs.
The Serbs weren't quite so thrilled. On Feb. 21, some 200,000 protested in Belgrade, chanting "Kosovo is Serbia" and holding placards that read, RUSSIA, HELP. Rioters set the U.S. embassy on fire; Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed never to recognize Kosovo and threatened to support secessionist movements in Georgia and Moldova.
Not so long ago, the scenes of unrest would have inspired fears of the kind of ethnic violence that devastated the Balkans in the '90s. But these are different times. Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian leaders have belatedly tried to extend an olive branch to the province's aggrieved 120,000 Serbs. In addition to allowing Serbs in northern Kosovo to have their own police, schools and hospitals, Kosovo's new Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, did the unthinkable: he delivered part of his inauguration speech in the hated Serbian language. Even in Serbia, whose citizens feel genuine humiliation over losing Kosovo (which Serb nationalists call their "Jerusalem"), the protests should abate. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has threatened to retaliate against Kosovo's becoming independent by suspending talks with the European Union, but Kostunica can't afford to cut ties with the West. The E.U. supplies 49% of Serbia's imports and buys 56% of its exports--a far more valuable trade relationship than Serbia's with Russia.
But Kosovo matters to our future because it underscores three alarming features of the current international system. First, it exposes the chill in relations between the U.S. and Russia, which is making it difficult for the U.N. Security Council to meet 21st century collective-security challenges. Putin has used the Kosovo standoff as yet another excuse to flaunt his petro-powered invincibility, sending his likely successor, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, to Belgrade to sign a gas agreement. If a firm international response is to be mobilized toward Iran, Sudan or other trouble spots in the coming years, the U.S. will have to find a way to persuade Russia to become a partner rather than a rival in improving collective security.
Second, the 27-country E.U., which is bitterly divided over Kosovo, lacks an overarching defense or security vision. After Kosovo declared independence, Britain, France and other countries offered recognition, while Spain, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Slovakia refused to do so. Keeping peace in Kosovo will require European nations to put their citizens at risk. Unfortunately, the stated desire of many European countries to reduce their commitments to the nato effort in Afghanistan does little to bolster confidence in Europe's eagerness to maintain international security.
Finally, the disagreements over Kosovo expose the world's fickleness in determining which secessionist movements deserve international recognition. If Kosovo's supporters were more transparent about the factors that made Kosovo worthy of recognition, they could help shape new guidelines. A claimant has a far stronger claim if, like Kosovo, it is relatively homogeneous and not yet self-governing, if it has been abused by the sovereign government and if its quest for independence does not incite its kin in a neighboring country to make comparable demands. Not all secessionists can clear that bar. Iraq's Kurds, for instance, are clamoring for independence. But the Kurds are already exercising self-government, and their independence could have the destabilizing effect of causing the Kurdish population in Turkey to try to secede.
Western countries will have to work hard in the coming months to ensure that Kosovo and Serbia do not descend into violence. The larger problems highlighted by the impasse aren't going away anytime soon. Unless they're resolved, a U.S. embassy may not be all that goes up in flames during the next crisis.
TIME columnist and Harvard professor Power also advises Senator Barack Obama on foreign-policy issues