Kosovo Independence Now Likely

The diplomatic endgame raises tensions with Russia and the prospects for instability in the Balkans

With the passing Monday of an international deadline to broker a deal between Serbia and its breakaway region of Kosovo, the once war-torn province looks destined to become Europe's next, independent nation--setting the stage for new tensions between Russia and the West and possible instability in the Balkans.

More than four months of intermittent negotiations run by the European Union, the United States, and Russia failed to break a tense stalemate between the mostly ethnically Albanian province and the national government in Belgrade. The mediators say there is no prospect of compromise. "The people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future," Kosovo's negotiators said Monday.

Kosovo was the setting for a 1999 NATO air war against the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic, which sought to ethnically cleanse the area of predominantly Muslim Albanians and silence attacks by separatist insurgents. About 10,000 people perished. Ever since, Kosovo has been a ward of the United Nations, protected by 16,000 NATO peacekeeping troops. Once the historic heartland of Serbia, Kosovo has a population that is 90 percent Albanian. Few Kosovars want anything less than independence, while Belgrade has been offering only a large dose of autonomy.

Earlier this year, a U.N. special envoy proposed that Kosovo go independent under the close stewardship of the EU, with security and cultural guarantees for its Serbian minority. The Bush administration and most of Europe back the plan, but Moscow rejected it and still insists on more negotiations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says, though, that it is time to get on with the U.N. plan, and Kosovar leaders said Monday that they will commence talks with western countries on an all-but-certain declaration of independence. That is likely to be issued in January or February.

But trouble is brewing. Serbia may seek to peel off the more ethnically Serbian portions of Kosovo for itself, and Serbian militants have threatened action in the event of independence. Politicians in Serbia have also hinted that they will retaliate by backing independence moves for the Serbian enclave of nearby Bosnia, a country split into three ethnic zones and hobbled by a weak central government after years of war.

EU countries are likely to begin moving on Kosovo independence later this week. They are preparing to send 1,600 police officers and to select an official to oversee Kosovo.

But Russia, backing Serbia, is expected to block any U.N. Security Council approval for Kosovo's separation from Serbia. Some diplomats fear that Moscow will also use the Kosovo case as justification for supporting not only Bosnian Serb independence--unraveling the carefully spun diplomatic deal that created Bosnia in 1995--but also the independence of two Moscow-backed rebel provinces in Georgia--Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such a scenario could easily ignite war in a strategically placed ally of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to see the Balkans as an area for pushing back on the expanded western influence that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. Russia is keeping the West guessing about the consequences of Kosovo independence. "In the event that Kosovo unilaterally declares independence and that independence is recognized, this will not be without consequences," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Monday. "This will trigger a chain reaction in the Balkans and in other areas of the world."

With exquisitely bad timing, Kosovo is now poised to push its way on to the Bush administration's already crowded plate of foreign policy troubles. Washington may be lucky if the problem remains confined to Kosovo.

By Thomas Omestad