Southeastern Europe is still a zone of fragility nearly seven years after the brutal wars of Yugoslav succession came to an end. Perhaps the most fragile part of the zone is the Serbian province of Kosovo, which has an ethnic-Albanian majority that is seeking independence. Earlier this year the United Nations, which has been administering the province since 1999, backed a recommendation to start international talks on whether Kosovo should gain independence. The United Nations administrator in Kosovo, Danish diplomat Soeren Jessen-Petersen, describes Kosovo as the last piece in the Balkans puzzle. In addition to being like a puzzle, the Balkans could be thought of as a chessboard.
The United Nations envoy for Kosovo, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, has arrived in Pristina, ahead of talks to determine the future of the disputed Serbian province.
Danish envoy Jessen-Petersen says he hopes if a settlement is reached in Kosovo the entire region could begin the process of integration into the rest of Europe. Kosovo, he says, could be the last piece of the Balkans puzzle.
The conflict that the province endured in the late 1990s was fueled by ethnic division between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority, and that division remains. Though the province is part of Serbia, most of its ethnic Albanians want independence, which is strongly opposed by the Serb government in Belgrade.
To Mr. Jensen-Petersen, the Balkans is a chessboard, with most pieces coming from Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Albania. But key pieces come from outside the region as well, including the European Union, Russia and the United States.
But as in chess, there is awareness that each move has wider implications. At a meeting with reporters, Mr. Jessen-Petersen was asked how a Kosovo settlement would impact neighboring Montenegro, a sparsely populated coastal republic.
"I don't think that one should look at Kosovo and Montenegro, in your words, together," he said. "These are two very different issues. But what they have in common is that we are all seeking stability and stabilization for the western Balkans as a region."
As with chess, considerable thought is attached to the implications of each move. Could Kosovo's independence impact Montenegro, which has long been contemplating separation from Serbia? If Kosovo goes off on its own, might the Serbian part of Bosnia want to do likewise?
NATO and European Union soldiers keep the peace in both Bosnia and Kosovo. If ethnic Albanians gain independence in Kosovo, what message would that send to Albanians in Macedonia, which nearly descended into civil war four years ago and where many districts adjacent to Kosovo and Albania are almost entirely ethnic Albanian? And what of Serbia itself, the country blamed for most of the Yugoslav wars? Might other parts of Serbia wish to secede?
Sensitive to the implications of changing borders, the United Nations appears to have ruled out any partition of Kosovo along ethnic lines.
Mr. Jessen-Petersen is optimistic he can help put the Balkans puzzle back together so that all the pieces will fit - Kosovo status will be settled and the states of the western Balkans will move in relative harmony towards the European Union. But he knows he is playing a complicated game with many risks ahead.