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Kosovo Status Poses Stability Risks?

The United Nations Security Council recently put on hold a draft resolution proposing Kosovo's independence from Serbia because of Russia's threat to veto the measure. What are the consequences of postponing dealing with Kosovo's legal status, which some analysts say include instability in the Balkans?

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and secured by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for nearly a decade. It has been an international protectorate since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign that stopped a violent crackdown against ethnic-Albanians by Serb forces, who were engaged in a two-year guerilla war. But the province, which is 90 percent ethnic-Albanian, has formally remained a part of Serbia.

Most analysts say that after the NATO campaign, the United States and its European allies postponed resolving Kosovo's legal status because of concerns that recognizing its independence would inflame Serb nationalism and diminish the prospect of swift democratic change in Belgrade.

Problems Amplified

Many experts contend that Kosovo's murky legal status created a set of intractable problems. Charles Kupchan, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, says it has hampered the recovery of one of Europe's poorest areas, where more than half of Kosovo's two-million people live in poverty.

"Kosovo is not a flowering new state or territory. Some parts of the territory are not entirely controlled by the government. There is a lot of criminality, a lot of [gun and drug] trafficking. This is in part a product of the fact that the region is in limbo. It doesn't have formal political status, therefore it doesn't have access to some of the international financial institutions that would help give loans for new power plants, new jobs and new industries," says Kupchan. "And so the political situation is creating social and economic stress, which only makes the situation more volatile."

Kupchan says if Kosovo's status continues to be delayed, the impatience in the province's ethnic-Albanian community could result in violence.

Many analysts say the outbreak of large-scale violence between ethnic-Albanians and Serbs in 2004, forced the international community to change its approach. The following year, the U.N. endorsed the beginning of talks between Belgrade and Pristina on the future status of Kosovo. The two sides began meeting in early 2006, but Pristina's demand for independence and Belgrade's refusal to accept it led to a deadlock.

Future Talks

In recent weeks, the United States and its European partners moved to impose an international solution through the U.N. Security Council. But efforts shifted to the informal Contact Group of interested countries after Russia expressed misgivings about the plan to grant Kosovo supervised independence.

During the next few months, the Contact Group, which includes the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, is expected to sponsor a new round of talks between Pristina and Belgrade.

Stephen Szabo of The German Marshall Fund in the United States says Belgrade will have to face a new reality. "The problem with Serbia, right now, is that they've lost a good part of their territory and they will have to learn to live with this. They will have to realize that this has been lost through a reckless, genocidal type of policy and that they will have to come to terms with that. But, I think, the U.S. does see the Serbs eventually having to come along, because Serbia has no future outside of the E.U. and NATO," says Szabo.

But foreign affairs specialist Charles Kupchan is skeptical that the talks will be productive. He says Kosovo has always been central to Serbian national identity as the birthplace of the Serb medieval state.

"The issue is so part of Serb history, Serb psychology, that it is extraordinarily difficult for any Serb politician to stand up and say, 'Well, who needs this anyway? Let's let it go.' The territory is seen as the cradle of Serb civilization, one of the homelands of the Serbian Orthodox Church," says Kupchan. "In that sense, it has enormous historical import. It is almost impossible for me to imagine that you will ever get a green light from Belgrade."

Kosovo Albanians equally cherish the area. They trace their roots in the region to before Roman times. Historian Nicholas Pano at Western Illinois University says that throughout the 20th century, ethnic-Albanians were on the losing side in their struggle to win control of Kosovo from Serbia. He says ethnic-Albanians feel Serbs oppressed them, but they believe this time independence for Kosovo is possible.

"The U.S. and the countries of the European Union have raised the expectations of the Kosovars that this independence is achievable. And if, for some reason, this is not going to be achievable in the immediate future it will cause a tremendous let down. It could result in diminution of influence in Kosovo of the United States and that of the European Union. So this is a very critical issue," says Pano.

The Big Picture

Professor Pano adds that the stability of the region is at stake. And Stephen Szabo with The German Marshall Fund agrees. He says Kosovo, with its potentially antagonized Muslim majority population, could become an even greater concern for Europe and the United States.

"The bigger issue is the problem of it being very close to Austria, Germany and Hungary -- to a large number of E.U. states. Instability in Kosovo will certainly lead to the problems of immigration or migration, economic problems. And the worst-case scenario would be to have an Islamic state that could become a rogue state on the periphery of Europe," says Szabo.

Some experts worry that granting independence to Kosovo would set a precedent for other groups to seek their independence from existing states. But others argue that resolving Kosovo's status would finally mark the end of what was Cold War Yugoslavia and begin the region's reintegration with the rest of Europe.

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