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Russia Reacts to Kosovo

Special United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari is expected to present his plan on Kosovo's political future to the Security Council on Monday.

Technically, Kosovo - - populated by mostly ethnic-Albanians - - is still a province of Serbia. But since 1999, Kosovo has been under the administration of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That followed a more than two-month-long NATO-led bombing campaign that ended a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Since that time, experts say Kosovo's political status has been in limbo. In an effort to resolve the issue, the United Nations, in November 2005, appointed former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to oversee negotiations to determine Kosovo's final political status.

Trying to Satisfy Belgrade and Pristina

Charles Kupchan, a Balkan expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says Ahtisaari's job was thankless. "Ahtisaari was in the very difficult position of having two capitals - - Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, Belgrade, the capital of Serbia - - that had no common ground whatsoever. The position of the Albanians was nothing short of independence. The position of the Serb government in Belgrade was anything but independence," says Kupchan.

Last February, Ahtisaari outlined a plan that would not grant outright independence to Kosovo but would put the province on the road to statehood. Kupchan says the Kosovo Albanians accepted the plan - - albeit with reservations - - while Serbia rejected it outright. "Ahtisaari engaged in one last round of negotiations, seeing if possibly he could get the Serbs and the Albanians in Kosovo to come to an agreement. That has proved to be out of reach -- and at this point, he's essentially said, 'I'm done. I'm washing my hands of negotiations. Here's my report; it's your turn, Security Council,'" says Kupchan.

Ahtisaari is expected to present his final report on Kosovo's status to the U.N. body on Monday [March 26]. And according to the French daily newspaper Le Monde, which has obtained a copy of the report, Ahtisaari has -- for the first time -- explicitly endorsed independence for Kosovo. Le Monde quotes Ahtisaari as saying, "Kosovo's reintegration into Serbia is not a viable option," and "maintaining an international administration is untenable." He goes on to say, "Independence is the only option."

Experts say this could set the stage for a diplomatic showdown between the West and Russia. Moscow has consistently stood by Serbia, saying any outcome that is rejected by Belgrade is unacceptable.

Debt to the Brethren?

Stephen Cohen, a Russia expert at New York University, says there still is a lot of resentment in Russia that in 1999, then president Boris Yeltsin stood by as NATO air strikes hit Serbia. "Serbia, being a fellow Slav country. And even more so, that [special Russian envoy Viktor] Chernomyrdin, was sent to Serbia to persuade [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic to capitulate, which led to his arrest. The feeling that Russia didn't stand by family, by its little brother."

And therefore, says Cohen, "What we're seeing today is Russia's feeling that it must stand by Serbia. If Serbia said, 'We don't care where Kosovo goes,' Russia wouldn't care either. But the feeling in Russia [is] that there's a limit to the number of times we can betray our historical friends and allies."

Analysts say the question is whether Russia is willing to stand by its Slav brethren enough to use its veto at the Security Council and effectively torpedo Ahtisaari's Kosovo plan, which is endorsed by the United States and the European Union.

Stephen Cohen believes Moscow will use the veto; Charles Kupchan doesn't. "Simply because the stakes for Russia are very low. Kosovo has no oil, no nuclear reactors, no trade with Russia," says Kupchan. "And it seems to me that it would not be in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's interest to have a major clash with the EU and the United States over an issue that is really tangential to the Russians. My guess is that they won't vote for it but in some respects, the easiest thing for them to do is hold their nose and abstain. And that way, they don't end up having a major confrontation with the West at a time when relationships between the West and the Russians are already strained."

'Veto' is a Very Big Word

Just a few days ago [March 19] Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations, was non-committal on the veto question. "'Veto' is a very big word. So I don't want, of course, to use it before the day comes to take a vote," Churkin said.

But Churkin also said he can't see how the Security Council could support a solution which would sever a part of a country -- a reference to Kosovo independence.

Charles Kupchan, from the Council on Foreign Relations, says granting independence to Kosovo could open a Pandora's box. "And the Serbs in Republika Srpska - - that's Bosnia - - could say, 'Well, if the Kosovo Albanians can leave Serbia, why can't we join Serbia?' And perhaps the Albanians in western Macedonia will say, 'Well, this is a sanctioning of ethnic partition, we are going to leave Macedonia and join Albania or Kosovo.' And the same thing could be said about the Chechens. It could be said about the Abkhaz. It could be said about the south Ossettians."

Kupchan says many governments are closely watching to see how the Kosovo situation will be resolved, hoping that it would not entice ethnic secessionist tendencies in their neighborhoods.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.