As hopes fade for an amicable diplomatic resolution to the unresolved status of Kosovo, many there and in the international community are contemplating the consequences of moving forward without international consensus.
Faced with the threat of a Russian veto, supporters of the region's bid for independence on Friday shelved the latest attempt to resolve the question in the United Nations Security Council. That same day, Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku said a concrete timeline must be set for Kosovo's independence and proposed Nov. 28, Albania's independence day. He added, however, that Kosovo would not make such a move without support from its international allies.
Kosovo's bid for independence is strongly backed by Washington, where Mr. Ceku will meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others Monday. The European Union (EU), however, is more divided.
The challenge now for Kosovo and its allies, which see the province's independence as inevitable, is to garner enough international support to proceed toward that goal without upsetting the delicate political balance in the region.
"The European Union in particular is going to have to face up to the fact that it cannot rely on the Russians, it cannot rely on the Security Council," says Alex Anderson, project director for the International Crisis Group in Kosovo. "The international community is going to be to an extent divided. I think the main question now is how to make that divide as small as possible."
The majority ethnic Albanian region is still considered by the international community to be part of Serbia, but has been under UN and NATO administration since 1999 when a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians led to NATO bombing of Serbia.
Though desperate to end this limbo, Albanian Kosovars say they will settle for nothing less than independence. Serbia, which has the backing of Russia – one of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council – insists it will never consent to lose a region it sees as its historical heartland. On Monday, Serbia threatened unspecified measures against countries that supported Kosovo's independence absent a Security Council resolution.
International negotiators had initially hoped that the promise of closer ties to the rest of Europe – and eventual EU membership – might help lessen Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's independence. When that proved unlikely, the negotiators turned to the Security Council for a mandate that could move the province toward statehood.
But Russia has said it will not support independence while Serbia remains opposed, and observers say there is little hope for a negotiated settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.
"It may not be constructive even to imagine that there can be one at this stage," says Mr. Anderson, whose organization supports UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan that would put Kosovo on the road to independence. "It takes away energy from dealing with realistic scenarios."
With the failure of the Security Council process, talks on Kosovo's future have now been moved out of the UN to the Contact Group – an informal body that includes members from the US, Britain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, and members of the affected parties – which is scheduled to meet starting Wednesday in Vienna. But even those involved in the process say they're uncertain what the focus of those talks will be.
Russian opposition is not the only obstacle. Many EU members are wary about granting Kosovo independence without international consensus and in opposition to Serbia and Russia, with which relations are already strained.
At home in Kosovo, many are coming to terms with the idea that recognition of any independence may not be universal.
"If it doesn't happen [through the Security Council] it will be difficult. There will be problems, especially in access to investment that Kosovo needs," says Ylber Hysa, who has been involved in the negotiating process on behalf of Kosovo. "But if it takes that road, we are ready to do whatever it takes to be independent."
As the status process continues to slowly drag out, however, Kosovo's leaders are facing increased impatience at home. In the past week, key negotiators have begun pressing for a firmer deadline. In addition to Ceku's proposal of Nov. 28 as a possible date for independence, Veton Surroi, an opposition leader and member of Kosovo's five-member negotiating team, said independence should come before Christmas.
Many observers say, however, that it is unlikely the region will declare independence without some clear approval from at least part of the international community.
"Kosovo's government is entirely dependent on international dynamics," says Dukagjin Gorani, a journalist and analyst in Kosovo. "That means no decision will take place unilaterally. What you have in terms of statements about independence is basically a show of disobedience, or just a public show of trying to regain some lost credibility with the public."
Mr. Hysa says that President Bush's assurances of US support for Kosovo's independence bid during a recent trip to Albania was seen by many Kosovar Albanians as a strong guarantee that independence was around the corner and helped keep the mood calm. But, he warns, resolution must come by the end of the year. "It has to be a realistic timeline."