The war in Kosovo seems to confirm our worst fears about the dangers to peace that lurk in ethnic conflict. As with Bosnia before it, attempts to stop "ethnic cleansing" through diplomacy proved fruitless, leading to outside military intervention.
Western troops and hordes of international personnel now occupy both Bosnia and Kosovo. The result is, effectively, an international protectorate unlikely to solve long-term problems.
But Europe and the rest of the world are not full of Kosovos - yet. In fact, the term "ethnic dispute" simplifies a wide variety of situations.
Some governments, like Serbia's or Croatia's, clearly have yet to accept people of varying backgrounds on equal footing; and some ethnic organizations, like the Kosovo Liberation Army, favor a separation hardly conducive to building cohesive states. But most governments in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are not committed to ethnic cleansing; and most minorities don't favor secession.
Kosovo's "lessons," whatever they are, don't fit Latvia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Macedonia, or other states where differing groups are at least trying to live side by side. In those countries, there's a margin to maneuver in bringing parties together.
What can outsiders do in these situations? The key lies in acting very early, before shots are fired and the sides are no longer willing to deal. It also requires addressing the issues behind the general term "ethnic dispute," such as the desire of minorities to use their own language, to control aspects of their children's education, or to have a voice in government.
Such a recipe isn't wishful thinking. Europe already has a mechanism to prevent conflict. For seven years, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - the 55-nation grouping comprising the states of Europe and the former Soviet Union, the US, and Canada - has given a conflict-prevention mandate to its High Commissioner on National Minorities.
Working from an obscure row house in The Hague, senior Dutch statesman Max van der Stoel and a small group of advisers - on a tiny budget - have crisscrossed the continent for seven years, working with governments and minorities on solutions to ethnic tensions.
Their efforts show the nitty-gritty nature of conflict prevention: not high-profile Holbrookian trips with a retinue of aides, generals, and media coverage to confront the sides over matters of war and peace; but low-key, repeated visits to go over details of pending legislation, bureaucratic reform, and other mundane matters.
Take the case of university education in a minority language - a major issue for ethnic Hungarians in Romania and ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. In each nation, Mr. Van der Stoel has devised a proposal for a new university aimed at addressing minority wishes for education in their own language while respecting the government's desire to use the state language at the main public university. He's also tried to sell the idea to potential foreign donors and political groups in the countries.
Why would governments listen to such an outsider?
Quiet diplomacy, an understanding of the prerogatives of governments to keep their states united, and political savvy help. More importantly, powerful actors with leverage, like the European Union and the US, back up such initiatives. Governments know if they don't heed Van der Stoel's advice, adverse consequences can follow, like staying off the short-list for EU membership.
The results of this method are tangible. Van der Stoel's proposal for accelerating citizenship to long-term Russian residents of Latvia reduced a major source of tension in Latvia, and between Latvia and Russia. The proposal survived even a national referendum as it became linked to potential EU membership.
The OSCE also convinced Ukraine and its province of Crimea to accept a framework for autonomy that significantly reduces secessionist desires.
When Slovakia's former prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, refused to act on the OSCE's concerns about ethnic Hungarians, it increased that country's isolation, leading Slovak voters to replace him with a moderate whose coalition includes the ethnic Hungarian party.
This early action is hardly a panacea. Many proposals have languished on government desks for years. Serbia wouldn't talk to Van der Stoel or others about Kosovo. A focus on conflict prevention also means some minority issues are ignored, notably the plight of Europe's worst-off minority, the Roma (gypsies). And conflict prevention must go hand in hand with democratic-institution-building.
Europe's ongoing experiment shows the possibility of a real and cheap way to create conditions now that will avoid brinkmanship and force later. Mistrust and hatred will still limit its effectiveness. But with the right person and the leverage to back him up, early conflict prevention may be our best hope to help multiethnic states build stable societies.
*Steven R. Ratner is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. For the past year, part of it as a Fulbright senior scholar, he has lived in The Hague and studied the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society