In the run-up to the talks, the main protagonists have been staking out their positions, albeit with differing tactics. Kosovar Albanian political leaders, who represent about 90 percent of Kosovo's population, stress calmly, but firmly, that they expect to declare independence, which is the only solution their voters will accept, on or after December 10.
That is the day when the members of the so-called international troika, which consists of the United States, the European Union, and Russia, will submit their report on Kosovo to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. On September 19 in London, Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku said of independence that "in the end, we will do it. We will make it happen." Serbs, Kosovars Far From Agreement
Belgrade's approach has been increasingly to mix its customary themes of legalistic complaints and self-pity with tough talk and threats. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has long argued that independence for Kosovo would harm the cause of democracy in his country by playing into the hands of extremists. He has also repeated his long-standing assertion that independence for Kosovo would automatically destabilize the Balkans, a view that Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has also reiterated in recent days.
In a new twist, Kostunica said on September 15 that Serbia does not want anything to do with NATO if Kosovo becomes independent with the support of the United States and the Atlantic alliance. This threat was presumably intended to put pressure on those Europeans who want to see Serbia integrated into all Euro-Atlantic structures and not just the EU. But some German and other politicians and commentators took Kostunica's words as evidence of his own political immaturity and called for Serbia to be dropped from NATO's Partnership for Peace program as long as he is prime minister.
Meanwhile, Belgrade turned down a Kosovar offer in mid-September of a postindependence bilateral friendship treaty. Serbian officials stressed that they will never accept statehood for the province, even though Belgrade has not controlled it since June 1999. Kosovo's Serbian minority is subordinated in the negotiating process to a Belgrade-sponsored delegation.
For their part, the Kosovar Albanians continue to reject Serbia's long-standing offers of "the widest possible autonomy." Kosovar leaders stress that the province's future must be based on self-determination and majority rule as the final episode in the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the latest installment of the worldwide decolonization process that followed World War II. They also argue that the Albanians want nothing to do with Serbia following Belgrade's brutal crackdown and ethnic-cleansing campaign of 1998-99, which forced tens of thousands of Kosovars to flee their homes. ...As Russia, U.S. Back Two Sides
Two of the international actors have also taken predictable positions. Russia remains firm in its stance that it will not agree to any solution that is not acceptable to both Belgrade and Pristina. Moscow has thereby given Serbia a veto in status talks and ensured that no pro-independence plan will get past its own veto in the UN Security Council. This includes the plan put forward by UN envoy for Kosovo Martti Ahtisaari, which calls for carefully supervised independence and which Moscow and Belgrade reject.
Russian officials also repeat the Serbian argument that independence for Kosovo will destabilize the Balkans. The Russians stress that independence would create a "dangerous precedent" for resolving "frozen" and other conflicts in the former Soviet space and elsewhere in the world.
The United States, like Ahtisaari and UN diplomat Kai Eide before him, argues that independence is the best way to bring stability to the region. According to this view, insecurity and a lack of clarity regarding the province's political status led to unrest in March 2004 and could lead to violence again. Those who hold this position add that the status issue must be clarified in order to attract investments necessary to create jobs and get unemployed young men in particular off the streets.
On September 24, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that independence for Kosovo "is the only solution that is potentially stabilizing for the Balkans rather than destabilizing.... If the [Europeans] need a stable Balkans, they're going to have to take tough decisions and do the right thing."
Some U.S. and other western Balkan experts also argue that independence for Kosovo would be a boon for democracy in Serbia because it would force Kostunica and other politicians to turn their attention away from nationalist rhetoric and toward Serbia's real problems, which are poverty, crime, unemployment, corruption, a democracy deficit, and a lack of transparency in public life. EU's Role Harder To Determine
If Moscow and Washington are taking predictable positions, the internally divided, 27-member EU is another matter. Some members favor independence for Kosovo, while some others do not, either because they fear it could inspire their own ethnic minorities to break away or because of their own special ties to Serbia. Britain, France, and Italy, which belong to the Contact Group, agreed to be represented in the troika by a representative of Germany, which is the fourth member of that body.
He is Wolfgang Ischinger, who is currently ambassador to Britain. He was an important figure at the 1995 Dayton peace conference that brought a formal end to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later represented the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Washington during the Iraq-related crisis in bilateral relations that began with Schroeder's reelection campaign in 2002.
Ischinger's position has been less easy to ascertain than those of most of the other protagonists. In August, he suggested that partition of Kosovo might be a possible option as part of a settlement, only to claim later that he had been misquoted. He has repeatedly made it clear that Serbia's and Kosovo's future relations with the EU will depend on the outcome of the current talks. He also echoes the Brussels line that Kosovo "must be primarily a matter for the EU," as Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of that body, recently put it.
But Ischinger has distanced himself from the Ahtisaari plan, which is unusual for a German or EU diplomat in dealing with recommendations from the UN. Instead, he told the British daily "The Independent" of September 18 that "I would leave open independence. I would rather talk about strong supervised status.... The label [independence] is worth nothing. Where are [the Kosovars] going to get their income from? They would continue to rely on foreign aid." He called instead for an unspecified "status solution which will provide for an internationally supervised status for Kosovo." The implication was that the Kosovars must do as Brussels wants because Brussels will control their purse strings.
These remarks set off alarm bells in Kosovo. Many Kosovars suspect that the EU is about to impose some sort of hybrid or quasi-colonial political solution on Kosovo and deny the majority self-determination. Such an approach would also enable Serbia to buy time and nurse hopes of eventually retaking the province -- and settling scores.
Moreover, in recent months, some West European think tanks have reportedly renewed efforts to devise creative formulas for a status that might resemble the Dayton system for Bosnia or the 2003 "Solania" formula for Serbia and Montenegro, which was designed by EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana. Most observers have come to regard the Dayton system as a stop-gap solution that has since become dysfunctional, while the state of Serbia and Montenegro barely lasted three years, despite heavy pressure from Brussels to preserve it.
THE EU DIVIDE ON KOSOVO
By Patrick Moore
RFE/RL regional analyst, Balkan and Russian affairs
It is widely expected that Britain and France, along with most of the smaller EU states, will back the position taken by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in late September that independence for Kosovo "is the only solution that is potentially stabilizing for the Balkans" and that "if the [Europeans] need a stable Balkans, they're going to have to take tough decisions and do the right thing."
Many prominent Italian political figures and scholars at think tanks have strong reservations about an independent Kosovo, which they regard as too poor to be a viable state and hence a likely source of criminal activity. Rome, however, is unlikely to actively oppose any strong pro-independence majority in the EU as a whole.
Germany's position is somewhat ambiguous. Berlin has supplied some of the top international civilian and military officials in Kosovo and is very familiar with the situation on the ground, including the likelihood of violence if the status question is not resolved soon. Some top German experts nonetheless have issued a study in which they outlined a number of alternative approaches to Kosovo's future that stop well short of independence. The report is widely assumed to have been drafted at the request of the Foreign Ministry. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" criticized the proposals as being too much like those that formed the basis of the short-lived hybrid state of Serbia and Montenegro, which, the paper argued, proved to be a waste of time and resources.
Spain is the only one of the large EU member states that has indicated strong opposition to Kosovo's independence, although some reports suggest that Madrid's opposition has weakened lately. Spain's concern is not wanting to set a precedent for the possible independence of some of its regions, which, like Kosovo under the 1974 Yugoslav and Serbian constitutions, have strong legal guarantees of autonomy. Romania and Slovakia are similarly concerned about possible secessionist aspirations of their respective Hungarian minorities, which, however, do not enjoy constitutional autonomy on the Kosovar or Catalan models.
Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Cyprus are all bound by traditional feelings of friendship toward Serbia and are sensitive toward Belgrade's point of view.
Hungary is in a special category. As was the case during the wars of the 1990s, Budapest is very careful not to offend Belgrade lest the Serbian authorities vent their displeasure on the large ethnic Hungarian minority in Vojvodina.