Balkans on the brink

By Simon Tisdall. See also Russia’s Test in Kosovo (THE GUARDIAN, 15/03/07):

In the evolving narrative of the Blair era, the Kosovo intervention is described as a key moment whose perceived success led fatefully to Afghanistan and Iraq. But after eight years of unpaid bills and hard choices deferred, a moment of reckoning is coming – and the legacy storyline is twisting dangerously awry. Kosovo’s second war of independence may be only months away.

Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who negotiated an end to the Bosnian war, warned this week that Russian opposition to a UN plan for Kosovo’s conditional, internationally supervised statehood may ignite a new conflagration. «Russia’s actions could determine whether there is another war in Europe,» Mr Holbrooke said in a Washington Post op-ed article. A disastrous domino effect would then ensue.

«If Moscow vetoes or delays the [UN] plan, the Kosovar Albanians will declare independence unilaterally,» he said. «Some countries, including the United States and many Muslim states, would probably recognise them, but most of the European Union would not. A major European crisis would be assured. Bloodshed would return to the Balkans. Nato, which is pledged to keep peace in Kosovo, could find itself back in battle in Europe.»

After years of getting nowhere on the central issue of Kosovo’s final status, the international community is now desperately short of time. Martti Ahtisaari, the UN special envoy, will present his plan to the security council on March 26. The former Finnish president insists a status decision cannot be delayed any longer. If it cannot be settled sooner, a showdown is expected at the June G8 summit in Germany’s Baltic resort of Heiligendamm, where western leaders will confront the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Hardline nationalists among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian Muslim majority are already pushing for immediate, full independence. The UN mission was targeted recently and tensions are rising. Nato sent 600 German troops yesterday to reinforce the 16,000 peacekeepers already deployed. Anticipating trouble, the US commander of Nato, General Bantz Craddock, said during a visit on Monday that his forces were «fully prepared» to respond to any violence. That potentially includes renewed attacks on Kosovo’s ethnic Serb Christian minority.

Tempers are also fraying in fractious Belgrade where rival politicians, struggling to form a government after an inconclusive January election, agree on two things only: that Kosovo is sovereign Serbian territory that will not be surrendered, and that the UN is acting illegally.

«Snatching Kosovo would represent the most dangerous precedent in the history of the UN [by] endangering the foundation of international order,» said the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. The country’s president, Boris Tadic, said Kosovo’s loss was «unacceptable» and «could lead to long-lasting instability in the region». Diplomats are increasingly worried that Serbia will refuse to accept a security council decision and attempt the de facto partition of the territory.

Russia, with ethnic, religious and strategic ties to Serbia, says Belgrade’s wishes must be respected as a matter of principle. But critics say Mr Putin is using Kosovo for tactical advantage in a wider bid to reassert Russian power on the international stage. Tony Blair’s big moment in 1999 was Boris Yeltsin’s moment of humiliation. Now Russia is stronger – and it’s payback time.

This latest battle for Kosovo could yet consume the EU itself, where several countries worry the UN plan will encourage separatists or independence-minded minorities from Catalonia and Corsica to Cyprus. Slovakia declared outright opposition to Kosovo’s independence this week. Other members want a deal so they can withdraw their costly peacekeepers. Since the EU is charged with taking over international supervision of the fledgling state from the UN – an unprecedented undertaking for Brussels – the internal divisions hardly make for a good start.

Mr Ahtisaari has no time for such mithering. «If the international community wants a solution, it has to be courageous enough to make a status declaration because the parties are totally incapable of doing it themselves,» he said in a recent interview in London. «You have to impose a solution from above. I don’t like it but that’s the situation.»

Suggestions that Russia, after extracting maximum advantage, would ultimately abandon the Serbian nationalists and strike a deal might not be very wide of the mark. «Putin has never said Russia would use its veto,» Mr Ahtisaari noted. But political will, so often lacking in Kosovo since the heady days of 1999, is key to avoiding a new crisis.

«If the EU cannot do this, it can forget about its role in international affairs. If we can’t do this during the German presidency, we should give up and admit we can’t do anything.»