But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried's trip last week to Belgrade and Kosovo left him feeling cautiously optimistic about the potential for a peaceful future in the province.
"It is clear that the people of Kosovo -- about whom all of this is taking place -- do want, in the main to live together," Fried said. "They are apprehensive about each other. They are apprehensive about each other, there is clearly not a great deal of trust, but there is at least a great deal of determination to make the Ahtisaari plan work."
"We do not want to see a Europe -- whole, free, and at peace -- with Serbia as an exception. We want to see Serbia as part of this Europe, whole, free, and at peace." -- Daniel Fried
In a briefing with reporters on March 12 in Washington, Fried said he started his trip on March 5 in Belgrade, where he delivered the same message in a public speech and in private meetings with President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
"In Belgrade, my public message to the Serbs was that the United States in particular, but also the trans-Atlantic community in general, wants to see Serbia as part of our common family and part of our common institutions," Fried said. "Whatever the final outcome on Kosovo, we do not want to see a Europe -- whole, free, and at peace -- with Serbia as an exception. We want to see Serbia as part of this Europe, whole, free, and at peace."Difficulty Finding Compromise
Although he didn't discuss the details of the Ahtisaari proposal in Belgrade, Fried said he told both leaders that the UN envoy is still open to incorporating changes in the document before handing it over to Secretary-General Ban.
Ahtissari's proposal envisions the international community assuming a key supervisory role in Kosovo for an open-ended amount of time. But Kosovo would be allowed many of the trappings of an independent state -- including its own constitution, flag, and army -- and granting it "the right to negotiate and conclude international agreements, including the right to seek membership of international organizations."
Serbia is opposed to any deal that would increase Kosovo's autonomy, and ethnic Albanians want nothing less than full independence.
In Kosovo, Fried traveled throughout the province, meeting first with the Albanian leadership and then with Serbian political leaders and elected officials. In those meetings, he said he heard concern, but no plans by Serbs to leave the region en masse or incite violence.
"I did not hear the mayors talk about mass exodus. I did not hear threats of violence. I did not hear demands, and threats of disruption," Fried said. "What I did hear was a great deal of concern about the future, a desire for clarity, a desire for an international presence beyond the status process, and from a great many Kosovo Serbs, I heard strong expressions of support for KFOR [NATO-led peacekeepers] and what KFOR is doing to protect them."
Members of the Albanian leadership told him they wanted to see all the "historic Kosovo populations" remain in Kosovo after the status question is resolved.Status Quo Not An Option
Fried acknowledged that the choices the international community faces in Kosovo are not ideal, but said at this point there is no choice but to work within the current realities.
"As I said in Belgrade, Yugoslavia didn't break up so much as it was murdered by extreme nationalists. That being the case, the international community is faced with difficult choices under difficult circumstances but we must make the most of what we've got," he said. "And I leave convinced that, as I was going in, we cannot go back to the situation before 1999, we cannot stay where we are. The status quo is not sustainable so therefore we must look ahead and deal with status."
He also said he disagreed with Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica's March 11 comment that granting Kosovo independence would be "the most dangerous precedent in the history of the United Nations."
"There is no situation anywhere in the world that bears a resemblance to Kosovo. There is no place where the UN has been administering for seven, now close to eight, years. There is no case where NATO was forced to intervene to stop a massive process of ethnic cleansing. The precedent simply doesn't apply," Fried said.
"We have said before and we'll say again as many times as we have to, that Kosovo is not a precedent for any other area ---- whether that's Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, Transdniester, Corsica, or Texas," he added.
As to the question of whether Russia will veto the UN plan when it is presented to the Security Council, as many in the region expect it may, Fried said Russia has voiced "concerns" but that the United States and Russia have worked "very closely and collaboratively" on Kosovo's status over the past several years, and he expects that to continue.Possibilities Of Violence
Tensions in the region remain high. On March 9, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic told the local news agency Beta that ultranationalist followers of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic may try to overthrow the Serbian government if Kosovo gains independence.
On the question of the potential for post-status violence, Fried said NATO is prepared to stay as long as necessary, and had the support of the population. Asked if that meant NATO was prepared to "take responsibility for major bloodshed and violence," he said he met with NATO commanders and they are prepared to step in if things become violent.
Also at the briefing was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, who attended the talks in Vienna as an observer. She characterized Ahtisaari's proposal as one that would lead to a more stable and prosperous Kosovo for both sides, and noted that although talks ended without consensus, there was agreement on "80 percent" of the plan.
"We think that Ahtisaari has done an extremely good job, he's shown great flexibility. He's gone to great lengths to accommodate the parties," she said. "What he has produced are compromises for both sides. There are some very hard compromises in this settlement document. We think it's time that we encourage the parties to come together around Ahtisaari's proposal and find a common ground."
The UN Security Council is set to discuss the proposal in April.