From Kosovo War to Cold War?

The Kosovo War isn’t over.

At the moment, Serbian ballots take precedence over bullets; democratic electoral politics are a blessing in Serbia and Kosovo, just like they are in Iraq.

But make no mistake: Sunday’s first-round 2008 presidential vote in Serbia was another battle in the Kosovo War, and it will not be the last.

Tomislav Nikolic, a radical Serbian nationalist and "Euro-sceptic," finished ahead of current President Boris Tadic. Tadic is a Serb nationalist but prefers regional political moderation and (despite occasionally rabid campaign rhetoric) favors EU membership. The runoff is scheduled for Feb. 3.

Nikolic is the protege of Serbian Radical Party founder Vojislav Seselj, who is under indictment for war crimes committed during Yugoslavia’s War of Devolution. Nikolic supports stationing Russian troops in Serbia to "bolster the Serbian position in seeking a solution to the Kosovo crisis and remove the potential NATO threat … ."

Yes — hot rhetoric intentionally laced with Cold War ice.

Tadic says his Serbia won’t "fight senseless wars." He contends that sending Serb troops into Kosovo (an action Nikolic says he will consider) means the end of Serbia’s moral claim to Kosovo and will lead to war with the European Union and NATO.

Kosovo’s "final status" lies at the center of the Nikolic-Tadic contest. "Resolving Kosovo’s final status" has been an intentionally vague diplomatic phrase for the process of determining if Kosovo will become a separate nation, remain part of Serbia or linger as a U.N.-EU-NATO protectorate.

Serbs, other Balkan Slavs and a few Greeks fear a fourth possibility: an independent Kosovo will encourage Albanian ethnic radicals who dream of Greater Albania. After taking Kosovo, irredentist Albanian zealots will demand slices of Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece’s Epirus province and Serbia’s Presevo Valley.

The murky diplomatic navigation of Kosovar Albanian demands, injured Serbian pride and Russian fears of a establishing a "separatist precedent" for spinning statelets from sovereign nations have divided NATO and the EU. Romania and Greece oppose a "unilateral" Kosovo independence. Spain, with its Basque separatists, isn’t enthusiastic.

The process has brought Vladimir Putin’s muscular Kremlin into open conflict with Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States.

Though thankfully a distant prospect, Kosovo’s dangerous conundrum could provoke a Cold War-in-miniature. Is this an alarmist fret given Europe’s 21st century political, economic and information connections? I hope so. I think broad international and multilateral interests dampen and ultimately absorb tough collisions that a decade or so ago might have re-energized and sustained a new "Russia versus the West" confrontation.

But Kosovo lies in the heart of the Balkans. Whatever its final status, violent Serb and Albanian diehards will not be satisfied. Recall progressivist nabobs at the turn of the 20th century thought modern Europe had politically evolved beyond war. Then the Balkans erupted, World War I followed, then World War II, tagged by the long, thermonuclear precipice of the Cold War.

A historian writing in the 24th century might see Europe’s 20th century wars as one long conflict that began with violent Balkan ethnic and nationalist squabbles (Albanian revolt, Bosnian land grabs and the First Balkan War) and ended with another deadly Balkan brawl (Yugoslavia’s devolution). It’s the kind of storytelling form historians employ once time smoothes jagged years into slicker centuries.

But what do we do now?

The next critical decision lies with Serbia’s electorate. Tadic, however, is only a comparative moderate — he does not support an independent Kosovo and he refuses to abandon Kosovo’s Serb communities. In April 2007, China said that it opposes an "imposed" solution — indicating China might join Russia in vetoing a U.N. move to declare Kosovo independent. Serbia has floated a "one state, two systems" solution, echoing China’s formula for Hong Kong. Kosovar Albanians reject that model and reject partition.

Creating a pan-European economic community that would soften militant nationalism by promoting economic and political interdependence is the great idea behind the EU. It has worked in Western Europe. To the east, Poland buys it. Russia doesn’t — not yet. Nor do militant Serbs and Albanians in the Balkan powderhouse.