With unsettling nuclear developments in North Korea, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and political upheaval in the Middle East, little attention is being paid to the Balkans, which might seem like a preoccupation of the post-cold-war 1990s.
But Kosovo – a Serbian province of 2 million people that spawned a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 – is on the brink of bursting onto the world stage once again. With the United States and the European Union pressing for resolution of Kosovo's final status this year, it once looked like independence was assured. But now Serbia is finagling to put that decision off – a move that could awaken Balkan unrest once again.
After seven years of United Nations control, the majority Albanian and Muslim population is clamoring for independence. But the Serbian (and largely Christian) minority is campaigning to remain attached to Serbia. The Serbian Kosovars claim that independence would mean creation of an Islamic fundamentalist state in Europe and expose them to ethnic violence.
Beyond those issues, other factors seem primed to raise Kosovo's status on the international agenda. The US would like to free up the 1,700 peacekeeping troops it still has in the province. Economic investment in a region that is an important trade and energy route is being held up by uncertainty over Kosovo's status.
And while some experts warn that failure to resolve Kosovo's status could turn it into a powder keg once again, still others caution against hasty action: They say Kosovo is being closely watched by other restless regions in eastern Europe and central Asia – including in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – and could be used to fire up breakaway movements.
"It may seem hard to imagine that there was a day not so long ago when the Balkans were the biggest foreign-policy issue on the US plate, but the simple issue is still there," says Daniel Serwer, a Balkans expert at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington. "Part of the population wants to pull away and be independent, and another part wants things to stay the same. It's the repercussions that make things complex."
US officials have been saying since January that this would be the year of decision on Kosovo's final status. "The people of Kosovo deserve greater clarity, and as we approach the end of the year I suspect they will get greater clarity," said Daniel Fried, US assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, on a stop last month in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.
The UN's special envoy to Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, is supposed to deliver a status-settlement recommendation next month. Anticipating the report will favor independence, Serbia is seeking to head it off by proposing a new constitution that specifies Kosovo as part of Serbia.
US and European Union officials say Serbia's actions are unlikely to derail the push to determine Kosovo's status – though they say the tactics (possibly including a referendum on the new constitution and elections) could delay a decision, which is ultimately to be made by the UN Security Council, until next year.
While those maneuverings are going on, in Washington supporters and opponents of Kosovo's independence are redoubling efforts to win adherents.
Warnings from anti-independence groups
Anti-independence groups backed by Serbia have been running newspaper ads and sponsoring seminars in Washington to warn of a radical Islamist state and renewed ethnic cleansing if Kosovo is allowed to break from Serbia.
"Granting independence to Kosovo would be a reward for the crimes the Albanians have committed, and would create a base for criminality and jihad in the very heart of Europe," says Artemije Radosavljevic, a Serbian Orthodox bishop in Kosovo.
Bishop Artemije, who has made several trips to Washington to plead the Serbian population's case, claims that more than 3,000 Serbs of Kosovo have been killed or kidnapped in the years of international administration. He also says that 150 churches and monasteries have been razed and thousands of Serbian houses destroyed. He says he has found sympathetic ears in the US Congress, but little movement from a pro-independence stance in the State Department.
Mr. Serwer, who is also vice president of USIP's Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, says that while there have been some cases of violence against Serbs, the numbers have been "grossly trumped up" by the anti-independence lobby to make for a more alarming picture.
But Serwer reserves his ire for the references these groups make to Islamic terrorism "in an attempt to tap into American fears," he says.
"These claims, that go so far as to equate an independent Kosovo to an Al Qaeda refuge, are so outrageous and blatantly anti-Muslim that they are despicable," Serwer says.
Holding a similar assessment is Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and an independence advocate. "The population of Kosovo is one of the more pro-Western and pro-American populations in the world, " he says. "They had volunteers to fight [with the US] in Afghanistan and Iraq, so to say they are [Islamic] fundamentalists is to spread disinformation."
Beyond that, Mr. Bugajski cites reasons to settle Kosovo's status now. He worries the population could start to see the peacekeepers as occupiers, and he says uncertainty over the province's status is discouraging foreign investment. "I also believe that Serbia doesn't need the distraction of Kosovo as it modernizes and moves towards membership in the European Union," he says.
Indeed, some European officials say the international community must be careful not to play the Kosovo issue in a way that reinforces reactionary forces in the anticipated elections.
Such potential political implications have other experts cautioning about Kosovo's influence. "This goes beyond Kosovo and affects a number of countries in the greater Black Sea area that are fractured," says Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest political journal in Washington. "You have to at least ask the question if a too-hasty move to independence in Kosovo encourages the disintegration of other states."