After some 18 months of talks, countless missions, painstaking mapmaking, hand-holding, and hand-wringing – the sticky situation of Kosovo's status will be taken up by the United Nations Security Council Wednesday.
The meeting, to take place in private, constitutes the first test at the highest level of diplomacy of whether Russia intends to make independence for the Serb province a difficult if not nasty process for the West.
Russia has loudly backed Belgrade's desire to retain Kosovo and says it will veto Kosovo independence in the Security Council – despite what US officials privately say was a prior "understanding."
"What's happening [on Kosovo] is an extension of two wars," says Marshall Harris, a former US diplomat and adviser to the president of Kosovo. "The first is the Milosevic wars in the Balkans ... and the second is the cold war. The independence of Kosovo needs to happen for this reason. You can't reintegrate Kosovo into Serbia. The Security Council meeting may reveal what Russia's bottom line will be."
The dispute deeply worries European leaders, though it appears they plan to move on independence even without Security Council authorization. Days ago, at a key meeting in at a key meeting in Brussels, the European Union (EU) decided to send 1,800 police and civil administrators to Kosovo after the New Year. "The Kosovars and Serbs no longer want to live together," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the meeting. "Our goal is that Europe does not explode."
Kosovo is also a major test for European unity, experts say, and for transatlantic resolve at a time when Moscow appears to be shaking it. It has been eight years since the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia, the first military action designated as "humanitarian" – to stop a bloody "Greater Serbia" program that spread throughout the former Yugoslavia, ending with Western intervention. At the time, NATO and Russian troops faced off at the airport in Pristina in a brief crisis that lasted a day.
Today, a different kind of Kosovo standoff appears likely, though its severity is unclear.
"This is an important moment," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "The manner in which Kosovo is resolved will shape EU-Russian relations. The Europeans think Kosovo is of vital importance. We are the ones who must deal with it. Unless Russia changes course, we are 180 degrees apart from them."
Russian president Vladimir Putin could engineer moves that range from irritating to destabilizing, experts say. Moscow could declare Kosovo independence illegal, or recognize a potential independence declaration by Serbs in the flash-point Kosovo city of Mitrovica. Russia could also start to aid and comfort Serbs in a way that would restart a cold-war standoff.
The Kosovo independence process is proving to be nothing if not Balkanized: The UN "Athisaari" plan that the EU police will begin to de facto administer in Kosovo is likely to be rejected by the Security Council. The EU Kosovo mission lacks the unanimity among member states normally required for such action; Romania, Slovakia, Greece, and Cyprus oppose it. The Serbs are being invited to more quickly join the EU, provided that the Kosovo process moves smoothly; yet Belgrade has not turned over the Bosnian Serb leaders Gen. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, to The Hague war-crimes tribunal – a key precondition for Serb EU status.
(Carla Del Ponte, the Yugoslavia chief war crimes prosecutor, told a Belgium newspaper last week: "I am stupefied by the attitude of France, Germany, and Italy who want to soften their position. As decisions must be taken by unanimity, I am counting on Belgium and the Netherlands to remain tough.")
Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, Serbian president Boris Tadic and his advisers have for the first time stated that while they completely reject Kosovo independence, they will not use violence to keep the province. Yet advisers to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica have implied that it may not be possible to rein in various militia groups forming around Mitrovica.
Kosovars are expected to declare independence after the two rounds of Serb elections that end in early February. Leaders in Pristina worry that an earlier declaration could provoke Serbia and possibly help elect the Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic, an ultranationalist who has built his political career on regaining Kosovo.
Wednesday's meeting follows a Dec. 10 deadline to end talks on Kosovo's future. The process was described by all parties save Moscow and Belgrade as long and exhaustive. In November 2005, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to find a final status plan. Mr. Ahtisaari came up with "supervised independence" wedded to rigorous minority rights for Serbs. This September, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who will attend Wednesday's meeting, stated that, "A further prolongation of the future status process puts at risk the achievements of the United Nations in Kosovo since June 1999.... there is a real risk of progress beginning to unravel and of instability in Kosovo and the region." Russia is circulating a draft statement asking for more talks, something rejected by the US and Britain.
"In the interests of stimulating the negotiation process as well as resolving other crisis situations, we suggest the development of a 'road map.' The framework could take account of the reasonable interests of the sides," said Russia's Foreign Ministry Monday.