Two years of talks over Kosovo's future have ended in failure. As a result, the province is expected to soon declare independence from Serbia – over loud Serb and Russian objections, and amid concern of renewed violence in the Balkans. But there is less cause for alarm than appears.
One reason is the passage of time. The pending loss of Kosovo will bring howls from Serbia, which considers the province of mostly ethnic Albanians to be the cradle of Serb civilization. But Serbia has not been able to exercise authority over Kosovo since 1999, when NATO's air war freed it from a harsh Serb crackdown on Albanian dissent. Since then, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations, its security guaranteed by thousands of NATO forces.
After eight years of separation, the parties must now realize that the 90 percent of Kosovo that is made up of ethnic Albanians simply will not accept rule by Serbia. Neither is continued legal limbo advisable for an area so devastatingly poor. Kosovo can't attract investment when its future is uncertain.
Even so, what's likely to emerge will still not be full-fledged independence. Kosovo will call it that, of course. But the European Union sees it as "conditional independence," a diplomatic fudging that also allows Serbia to claim that Kosovo won't really be sovereign.
Almost all EU countries and the United States are expected to recognize a Kosovo government in Pristina, but only if it passes into law protections for its Serb minority and allows international supervision of the Serb community – to which it has agreed.
Meanwhile, what has been a de facto UN protectorate will become for some time a de facto protectorate of the EU, which will take over police training and assist economically (NATO will still protect it from external threats). Kosovo won't have a UN seat – yet – but it will have much more self-governance.
Each side has incentives to move on and avoid violence. First, Kosovo Albanians crave international recognition and are unlikely to endanger it – by repeating, for instance, a 2004 rampage on Kosovo Serbs.
Serbia says it has no plans to intervene militarily, for instance, to forcibly take northern Kosovo, where most of the 200,000 ethnic Serbs live. It well remembers NATO's power. Besides, northern Kosovo is so influenced and supported by Serbia, that the area's close ties to Belgrade are unlikely to change anytime soon. And Serbia still has its eye on EU membership. Its young people, too, are clamoring for jobs. More war, more violence, are not the way to get either. Serbia recognized this when it prevented Serb paramilitaries from gathering near the Kosovo border this week.
Lastly, there's reason to believe that Russia's bluster on Kosovo is largely bluff. It's siding with its Slavic ally, Serbia, but Moscow has little interest in Kosovo itself. Russia's threats to link Kosovo's sovereignty issue to two breakaway regions in Georgia run the risk of rebellion on Russia's flanks.
As the weeks unfold, violence could flare in and around Kosovo. NATO must be ready. But the world might find that self-declared independence, after failed negotiations, saves face for the Serbs, who have not had to publicly agree to independence. It can move both Kosovo and Serbia closer to Europe, to deeper democracy and growth.