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Kosovo: Former U.S. Envoy Says It's Decision Time For Europe, Serbs

(RFE/RL) October 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Amid signs that Germany and other EU countries are prepared to recognize Kosovo as independent if current negotiations fail, Mirjana Rakela of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service asked James O'Brian, who was a special adviser for the Balkans to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for his views on the situation.

RFE/RL: Is there any solution to the Kosovo question that would satisfy both the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians?

James O'Brian: No. I think the Serbs from Belgrade have taken a position that they would not accept independence. I expect that they will be forced to see Kosovo become independent.

It's important, though, for the people of Serbia to decide whether they see their future as part of the European Union -- and perhaps of NATO as well. If they make that choice, then this border choice will be of somewhat less significance. I understand it's going to be painful, but this is going to be a very difficult time.

One advantage right now is that people are exhausted by this issue. I think each side thought the issue would have been resolved almost a year ago, perhaps even more quickly, two years ago. And by now their ability to play out the issue is coming to an end.

RFE/RL: Considering the current circumstances, what will be the most likely outcome of Kosovo's status?

O'Brian: I think that the most likely outcome is that Kosovo will be independent. Because what the Serbs in Belgrade are not willing to see is that the Kosovars have a significant voice in governing Serbia, so at that point I think there is really no way in which you can regard Kosovo as part of Serbia.

Now, how will we get to that point -- and this will require some professional diplomacy. There are three envoys now from Russia, the European Union, and the U.S. They are going to conduct negotiations through the end of November. No one expects that they will succeed -- they've scheduled their last session for November 26-27. They will then report to the [UN secretary-general, who will report their failure.

And at that point it will really come down to the United States, the European Union, and Russia deciding on what the process will be going forward, and the U.S. has made clear it's ready to recognize an independent Kosovo; the Russians have made clear that essentially they will not; so, it will be up to the European Union, and that's the battle right now.

RFE/RL: A few weeks ago, EU envoy Wolfgang Ischinger proposed a conference similar to Dayton for Kosovo. The situation is a bit different than 12 years ago in Bosnia, when war was going on. What would be the goal of such a conference?

O'Brian: I think the only real goal is to persuade the leaders of the European Union that it's time to make a decision, and stick with that decision. So the real question is, are they ready to recognize an independent Kosovo. This diplomatic process is to reassure everyone that every effort has been made to reach a settlement that is satisfactory to both sides. And I think even the most reluctant leaders in the European Union now recognize that there is no way to negotiate this or to delay a decision further.

RFE/RL: Some experts say that Russia is trying to use the Kosovo issue to show off its new power vis-a-vis the United States. What are Russia's geostrategic, economic, or even emotional interests in the Balkans?

O'Brian: I think it is always hard to sort out what it is. Every Balkan negotiation, except maybe Dayton, has had the same pattern. At some point, the Serbs say they will compromise no more -- whether they are right or wrong they simply refuse to move. The West, broadly speaking, tries to mover further. The Russians say privately, "we don't agree with the Serbs, but don't make us decide against them publicly." And the solution is always the same -- it's to come up with a way forward where the Russians can criticize, but aren't forced to say "no" or to say "yes" in a public way.

So going through the Security Council was always going to be extremely difficult. A solution that does not go to the Security Council, is legal, and it will allow the Russians to say, "well, we don't like this" but it will not force the Russian to override the Serb position. That's always been the most likely outcome, and I think that's what it will be here just as it was in the early 90s. So in that sense, even though Russia is more powerful today than it was then, the realities of the politics in this particular issue haven't changed.