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Diplomatic Process Unfolds

If the parties fail to agree on Kosovo's future, an imposed solution based on “conditional independence” looks ever more likely.
By Tim Judah

In the wake of the March 2004 riots in Kosovo there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst those involved in Balkan affairs. Firstly, they declared the riots were "a wake up call" and secondly, they said, "something must be done".

After that, the same people tended to assume they had not been listened to and that sooner or later Kosovo would drift back into crisis.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth and a whole diplomatic process for Kosovo has started to unroll. Whether this leads to Kosovo's "final status" or to what diplomats now call its "future status" remains to be seen.

On May 27, the UN Security Council will examine the latest regular report compiled by the UN Mission in Kosovo, but officially presented by Kofi Annan, the Secretary General.

The report will discuss how much progress has been made in Kosovo towards each of the key "standards" it is supposed to live up to. These include human and minority rights.

In all likelihood, the Security Council will declare Kosovo has made enough progress to begin a more comprehensive review. Annan will then appoint a standards review envoy to do that. The envoy's report, assuming it is positive, will then trigger the next stage.

According to diplomatic sources, this will involve Annan appointing a status envoy to begin shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade and Pristina, aimed at securing a negotiated deal. He, or she, should begin work around mid-September and one idea being discussed is that the envoy should have three deputies, from the EU, the US and Russia.

Several names are being mentioned as candidates for the post of status envoy. One is Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, who has much Balkan experience.

Another is Giuliano Amato, the former Italian prime minister. However, according to one diplomatic source, "both may have ruled themselves out of a job" by taking part in the recent International Commission on the Balkans Report, which has proposed independence for Kosovo in four stages.

That leaves the former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, who also has much Balkans experience, as a strong candidate.

Both EU and US diplomats envisage the shuttle diplomacy phase lasting six to nine months. Anything longer, they say, and the process would lose momentum and drag on indefinitely, especially as the Serbian authorities may have an interest in indefinitely postponing any outcome that looks unfavourable.

In preparation for the talks, Serbian leaders are adopting the formula of "more than autonomy but less than independence". They want to prevent formal independence but at the same time give the impression they are more flexible and reasonable than the Albanians, who demand outright independence.

However, key European and American diplomats believe Serbia's position is simply unviable, since the Albanians would most likely resume the armed conflict if Kosovo was linked again to Belgrade.

One possibility is that the Security Council may move to impose a solution, assuming that Serbia and Kosovo's Albanians cannot agree on one themselves. This might take the form of "conditional independence". It will not involve a return to Serbian rule or formal partition.

Conditional independence could also mean, for example, that while Kosovo has a seat at the UN, an international official, resembling the High Representative in Bosnia and Hercegovina, may be appointed with reserve powers to veto legislation.

Majority Serbian and other minority areas would also be given extensive autonomy and an international military presence would remain in Kosovo.

This solution would mean full independence was postponed and Serbia could argue that Kosovo was "not really independent", as it retained a say in certain areas, either in the autonomous districts, or in general, for example in the field of Serbian education and in the upkeep of Serbian monasteries and churches.

On the other hand, with the possession of the symbols of sovereignty and virtual independence, Albanians could claim Kosovo was now, in fact, an independent state, bar the odd restrictive detail.

Any imposed solution carries the implication that Kosovo's status, beyond this transitional point, will be revisited, for example when the whole region is ready to join the EU. In other words, this might be around 2014, at the earliest.

Of course, events may derail the unfolding diplomatic process and while western diplomats hope Russia may go along with this plan (rather than oppose it and then be ignored if western countries then recognised Kosovo's independence) this cannot be taken for granted.

Serbia's leadership, in a bid to forestall all of this, may also refuse to participate and thus not recognise the outcome.

If this happens, however, Serbia risks losing the best opportunity it may ever have to secure its interests and those of the Kosovo Serbs.

Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia and Kosovo: War and Revenge, both published by Yale University Press.

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