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Charting Kosovo's Independence

Kosovo, the restive southern province of Serbia, which has been under international control for about a decade, intends to declare independence in the coming months. But any move toward full independence by Kosovo, which is dominated by a large ethnic-Albanian majority, will face strong opposition from Serbia and its historic ally Russia, which can block Kosovo's admittance to the United Nations.

Since the unraveling of Yugoslavia that began with a series of bloody conflicts in the early 1990s, the international community has maintained multiple peacekeeping missions and poured millions of dollars of economic aid into stabilizing the once-war-torn Balkan area and set it on a path toward democracy and a free market economy. Most of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia have made important strides and are now in the European Union or seeking membership. But the region has one last unsettled issue: the political future of Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo.

Kosovo has been under international trusteeship since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign, which ended a brutal Serbian effort to control the province's ethnic-Albanian majority and drove Serbia's security forces out of Kosovo. Although, technically, Kosovo is still part of Serbia, its ethnic-Albanian majority overwhelmingly favors independence, which the Kosovo Serb minority strongly rejects.

Most experts agree that keeping Kosovo in a state of limbo has slowed its economy, kept away foreign aid and investment, exacerbated lawlessness and intensified tensions between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs. Eager to scale back its commitments in the region and faced with the growing impatience of Kosovo's ethnic-Albanians, the international community last year began mediation efforts. But months of talks on Kosovo's future ended in a stalemate.

Russia has threatened to veto Kosovo's independence if it comes up for a vote in the U.N. Security Council. Moscow and Belgrade are calling for further talks. But the United States and leading European states say negotiations are exhausted and the status quo is untenable.

"The one thing that cannot be defended is a call for further delay. It's counterproductive, it's unlikely to lead anywhere and it can only create greater instability," says Robert Hand, a senior advisor on the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We simply can't leave a situation where the status of Kosovo is just kept on hold indefinitely. The people there need to know what their future is and they deserve to know what their future is. I think the United States understands that and it's pretty firm in its position of where Kosovo needs to go. I think it is not a question on where we want to see Kosovo go, it is a question of how do we get it there."

Objections to Independence

Russia and Serbia say it would be against international law for Kosovo to declare independence, and for countries to recognize it without a Security Council resolution. Moscow argues that it would set a dangerous precedent for some of the 50 or so territorial disputes worldwide. But others point out that unlike many others, Kosovo's case has been internationalized.

Some experts contend that Russia, while seeking to restore its world power status, has been flexing its muscles in places important to the West, including, Iran, the Caucasus and now Kosovo. According to Nicholas Pano, a historian at Western Illinois University, just as the U.S. is standing by its promise to Kosovo, Russia feels strong enough to keep its promise to Serbia.

"It's going to be very difficult for these parties to back off. A lot of it is going to depend on the general atmospherics of the international situation. Are we going to enter into a new period of competitiveness between the United States and Russia? Are we going to return to power diplomacy? These are imponderables, I think, that are still not yet clear, but certainly could influence how this issue is ultimately resolved," says Pano.

While there is broad agreement that Kosovo will remain a contentious issue, most foreign policy experts note that it is unlikely to cause a major fissure in East-West relations. Robert Hunter, a senior advisor with the Washington-based RAND Corporation who served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO and the European Union during the Clinton administration, says, "Russia is not going to war over Kosovo. It is not going to fundamentally change its position in regard to working with the Americans and the Europeans. But if you want to build a constructive European security, if you want to build constructive relations with the Russians in many of the trouble spots of the world, it is worth creating a broader framework within which these matters can be discussed," says Hunter. "But I wouldn't turn around and say, 'I'm sorry, if Russia is upset by what Kosovo might do. You Kosovars had better not do it.'"

Western Efforts

The United States, Britain and France have already stepped up their efforts to gather support from hesitant members of the European Union for bypassing the U.N. and recognizing a declaration of independence by Kosovar Albanians. In what some experts view as a first step toward an independent Kosovo, a European Union mission will shortly replace the current U.N. administration in the province.

Foreign affairs specialist Ioannis Saratsis with the Hudson Institute says the United States is eager to close the chapter on Kosovo. But he cautions that the province might not see much improvement without active U.S. involvement. "The Europeans have a very bad track record in the Balkans in general, starting from the first Yugoslavian war. They might see Serbia as a chance to prove to the world that they can act with a unified voice, that they can have a unified foreign policy. But I am not optimistic on the European Union doing a great job in Kosovo or in Serbia."

Saratsis adds that if leading European states recognize an independent Kosovo, Serbia's relations with the E.U. are likely to suffer, leaving the region unsettled yet again. Still other analysts say that over the past decade-and-a-half the European Union has helped usher in a period of calm and development in large parts of an area that has often been described as "the Balkan tinderbox".

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