The United States and Russia remain far apart on the issue of Kosovo.

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, or NATO. That followed a more than two-month long NATO-led bombing campaign that ended a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The Kosovo Albanians are demanding independence from Serbia, a move endorsed by the United States and the European Union. Russia and Serbia strongly oppose independence for Kosovo. Four months of internationally mediated talks last year ended in failure with no sign of compromise. And Russia has threatened to use its veto if the proposal comes up for a U.N. Security Council vote.

Sovereignty vs. Self-Determination

Robert Legvold, a Russia expert at Columbia University, says Moscow is opposed to Kosovo's independence because it is concerned about repercussions in and around Russia. "It [i.e., Russia] has also, from the beginning, been opposed to declarations of independence of this kind that would lead to the international community recognizing the sovereignty because it worries about separatism within its own territory, including Chechnya. That, then, becomes complicated, though, because you've got the mixed Russian reaction to parallel cases within its own neighborhood: Abkhazia in Georgia, Transdniestria in Moldova, maybe southern Ossetia [in Georgia]," says Legvold. 

Lawrence Eagleburger, former U.S. Secretary of State during George H. W. Bush's administration and former American Ambassador to Yugoslavia during Jimmy Carter's administration, says Kosovo's independence could have worldwide ramifications. "There is, in fact, a very serious question of this as a step that could easily be used by others in other parts of the world and probably with a lot less legitimacy than in the case of Kosovo, where in fact the Serbs have done some really pretty outrageous things in the past. But I think the tradition is a very dangerous one," says Eagleburger. "How about the Kurds in Iraq and the Kurds in Iran and the Kurds in Turkey? I can name you any number of places where this could be, where it could become an example to be used by others."

Eagleburger says the dispute over Kosovo pits the principles of sovereignty and self-determination against one another. "I have really very serious problems with the international community and part of that being the United States, advocating grabbing a hunk of territory from one country and making it independent. I don't think that's a tradition that we want to establish very substantially. There are perfectly good reasons for objecting to international efforts to hive Kosovo off from Serbia," says Eagleburger. "You can argue all you want to about the difficulties between Serbs and Kosovars, but there is another issue involved here which is the international tradition of all of a sudden establishing the right of the international community to order or pressure the taking of a particular territory and telling the nominal host country that it's no longer a part of their territory."

Former U.S. National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft, who served presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, agrees. "My own sense is that we have been moving too fast on Kosovo. I think that situation is not really ripe to be turned loose. Even in Bosnia -- we've been in Bosnia five years longer than in Kosovo and without a European presence -- Bosnia would revert to what it was before. These are very difficult, emotional issues," says Scowcroft. "And there is potential ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; there is the possible radicalization of Serbia -- it's an issue filled with emotion. Kosovo is, after all, the psychological heartland of Serbia. It is where Serbia got started. It is where their religious roots are. Their Fourth of July is the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and so it has deep feeling for them. And I sort of think we are pushing too hard."

Loss of Control?

Many analysts believe that with the failure of internationally brokered talks on the future of Kosovo, the Kosovo Albanians will declare independence from Serbia in the next few months. Jason Lyall, a Russia expert at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of International Studies, says that may have dire consequence.

"The real danger now is that the U.S. and Europe are deadlocked with Russia on this and that the action will be taken by local actors on the ground and that this will slip outside the control of any of these powers. It is certainly clear that Kosovo's politicians want independence -- they want it now," says Lyall. "The U.S. and Europe want this now as well. They may just devolve it to a different body and move this outside the U.N. and then declare Kosovo's independence without Russia's assent. And so the danger is that this will spill out of control -- and none of these powers are controlling what's going on on the ground. And you could actually set up a new round of ethnic cleansing or at least a conflict between the parties inside Kosovo."

For his part, Robert Legvold from Columbia University sees a more peaceful outcome. "The Serbs have said that if independence is declared and others are prepared to recognize it, they would take it to international adjudication to the International Court at The Hague which suggests that the Serbs are thinking of diplomacy, not of militancy or an aggressive response."

Legvold and others urge the parties to continue discussions to find a compromise and avoid another change of boundaries in Eastern Europe -- an effort the United States and the European Union say they have already exhausted.

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