After more than eight years under a UN protectorate, and centuries of ethnic wrangling, Kosovo seems on the verge of settling its political status—sort of. On December 10, a UN deadline for settling the Serbian province’s “final status” expired without resolution (BBC). The United States and many EU supporters of a supervised Kosovo independence plan remain deadlocked with veto-wielding UN Security Council member Russia, which wants Kosovo to remain part of Serbia. At some point soon, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, the overwhelming majority of the province’s population, say they will unilaterally declare independence (AP). What might happen after that remains anyone’s guess, but international troops are bracing for possible violence (VOA).
A unilateral declaration raises several potential problems. First, it would further complicate a transition away from the current UN-led administration. Kosovo can call itself a country, but with Russian opposition, it can’t be admitted into the United Nations. Moreover, UN peacekeepers won’t be allowed to stay in Kosovo, and the idea of transitioning to an EU-led peacekeeping force is complicated by the fact that some eastern EU members likely won’t recognize Kosovo (B92). The need for peacekeepers isn’t likely to fade. Pockets of Serb and Roma minorities remain throughout Kosovo. As recently as November 2007, the UN reiterated the need to protect these groups. The pressing question is whether a power vacuum might set off new bouts of ethnic killing. In mid-December, EU ministers attempted to strike a compromise deal with Serbia, proposing fast-track EU membership in exchange for cooperation—but the Serb foreign minister balked at the idea (Euronews.net).
A declaration of independence might also leave Kosovo in an awkward position regionally. Certainly it would calcify relations between Kosovo and Serbia, at least in the short term. Richard C. Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, says in a new interview with CFR.org that Belgrade remains “intensely nationalistic” and considers Kosovo “sacred soil.” Given the entrenched stances on both sides, the senior EU representative at meetings on the future of Kosovo recently expressed regret that “no additional options” (Deutsche Welle) remained for compromise in talks between Pristina and Belgrade.
Perhaps the biggest question, geopolitically, is what the precedent of Kosovo declaring independence would mean for other states in limbo, particularly in the former Soviet sphere. Russia’s staunch opposition to Pristina’s push for independence comes partly from concern that a handful of other breakaway provinces in the Kremlin’s “near abroad” would use the opportunity to follow Kosovo’s lead (Economist). Two regions within geographical Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are rattling for internationally recognized statehood. Russia is a major patron to both regions but has stopped short of endorsing independence. Only recently has Moscow quelled separatism in its republic of Chechnya. Azerbaijan and Armenia are also locked in a nearly two-decade-old standoff over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Moldova remains bedeviled by the unresolved status of its Trans-Dniester region.
Moscow might benefit if the upshot of negotiations in Kosovo is a “frozen conflict” that would halt the expansion of NATO forces, says a top RFE/RL analyst on Kosovo. In either case, Holbrooke says that the most pressing matter now is for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to dispatch additional troops into Kosovo to stave off the immediate possibility of violence. “We always talk about ‘preventative diplomacy,’” Holbrooke says. “Here is a classic case where a few troops now might prevent the need for more troops later.”