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UN chief signals shift on Kosovo

Despite Russian and Serbian opposition, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said Friday the UN would gradually cede its role.

By Staff writer / June 23, 2008

Checkpoint: French gendarmerie conduct military exercises on the border between Serbia and Kosovo.

Zveki/AP

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PRISTINA, KOSOVO

For 16 months, Russia and the West have been a bit eyeball-to-eyeball in the United Nations Security Council over the status of Kosovo. But to borrow Dean Rusk's famous phrase during the 1963 Cuban missile crisis, it appears that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has just blinked.

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Mr. Ban's concession on Friday appeared to brush aside Russia's objections and clear the way to end the nine-year "UNMIK" mission in Kosovo. Last week, Pristina authorities inked a milestone constitution, following a February declaration of independence.

For much of the past nine years, Kosovars described themselves as bystanders in their own fate; the future of this gritty city was controlled by Moscow, Washington, Brussels, and New York. A UN departure may begin to change that.

"Ban Ki Moon has clearly moved closer to the position of those states that recognize Kosovo, but from the Serb position, they've got what they wanted," says James Lyon of the International Crisis Group in Belgrade. "They have de facto taken Kosovo north of the Ibar River."

To be sure, Serbs strongly contest Kosovo. On Friday, a parliament of Kosovo Serbs will meet, backed directly by Belgrade. The body, considered illegal by Western officials, will coordinate Serb agencies, police, security, and even Ministry of Defense offices. It remains an open question whether the European Union can enter the largest enclave, Mitrovica.

"What will not be helpful is to push this problem off," says a senior Western diplomat affiliated with an international agency. "We don't want Kosovo as an international ward for years to come…. Drift contributes not just to instability in Kosovo. It contributes to Serb instability, [which is] the problem in the region."

Kosovo is a "second tier" priority for the United States and the West at a time of an Iran-Israel crisis, the Iraq war, and Afghanistan. Yet the dispute pits key principles in international affairs – state sovereignty against the relatively new concept of self-determination for the Kosovars. It is seen as a test of whether the Balkans can integrate into Europe – or are destined to devolve into nationalistic groups.

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