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Kosovo Inches Towards Independence – And War

There are no good wars, as Bart Simpson once famously advised us, with the exception of the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy. If recent Western military adventures have tended to reinforce the theory, the NATO campaign to protect the people of Kosovo at the end of the last century has generally been considered another exception to Bart's rather doctrinaire rule of thumb. (I'd say the jury's still out on the first one as well.) Strict isolationists and fringe "anti-imperialists" notwithstanding, most people saw military action against Milosevic's aggressive Serbian state as a necessary evil that delivered the people of Kosovo from a potentially grim fate, despite some wobbles in the prosecution of the war itself.

The best part of a decade has gone by since then but, quietly and almost unnoticed, the situation in Kosovo is once again giving serious cause for concern. Months of negotiations have failed to find a solution to the vexed question of Kosovo's "final status": the Albanian majority, who constitute 90% of the population, are strongly in favour of independence, but this would be utterly unacceptable both to Serbia and their patrons, the Russians, who have threatened a Security Council veto.

The international community's preferred option had been what was referred to as "supervised independence"; Kosovo would in effect become a sort of EU Mandate, with guarantees for the Serb minority, including self-government. This, too, was rejected by Serbia, and may no longer be on the table. Talks have stalled and there appears little realistic chance of progress.

However, two factors have now combined to shift the situation from merely intractable to downright urgent. The first is the UN's December 10th deadline for a resolution to the talks on Kosovo's future; the second, last Saturday's parliamentary elections in the province, which were won by the Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by a former leader of the KLA guerrillas, Hashim Thaci. Thaci's victory has been compared to the electoral success of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland; the moderates have been pushed to one side as ethnic Albanians grow tired of the protracted wrangling, and the Serb minority boycotted the polls altogether. Thaci now says that he will immediately and unilaterally declare independence if there is no agreement by December 10th – which there ain't going to be. Western diplomats are trying to stave that off, but no-one knows if they'll succeed.

A UDI could set off a terrible chain reaction, with the prospect of a revolt by Kosovan Serbs which would surely draw support from Belgrade, possible knock-on effects in Bosnia (where the EU's peacekeeping mandate expires this week) and the 16,000 NATO troops of K-FOR sitting in the middle of the powder keg. Moreover, the crisis comes at a time when Russia shows absolutely no interest in playing nice with the West on a whole range of issues, let alone one as emotive for Slavs as this one, and the arm-flexing is not ending any time soon. The US, for its part, has said that it will recognise an independent Kosovo, but some EU members might not follow suit. The situation has all the makings – not to put too fine a point on it – of a gigantic clusterfuck.

The prospect of a fresh outbreak of violence in the middle of a harsh Balkan winter is very real, and causing a lot of sleepless nights. For the European Union, which has an almost pathological aversion to military conflict, this is shaping up as a foreign policy nightmare – memories of our utter inability to prevent bloodshed in the 1990's without American help are still very fresh.

Is it realistic to expect America to back European words with US boots on the ground? I doubt it, in an election year with a president focused on Iraq and Iran, but Bush may have no choice. It may be Pristina, not the Persian Gulf, where events force our hand – and soon.

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