With the world focused on Iraq, North Korea and a possible clash with Iran over nuclear weapons, Kosovo has fallen off the radar screen. That inattention will end soon -- a decision about the province's fate is at hand.
The US and its European friends have repeatedly stated their intention to make the difficult decision before the end of the year on whether to separate Kosovo from Serbia. This decision -- crucial to the future of an unstable region -- will test Western determination and unity.
UN-brokered negotiations this year in Vienna showed that an agreed settlement between Serbia and Kosovo on "final status" will not happen. Talks continue, but -- as UN negotiator and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari diplomatically told the Security Council -- they are effectively dead.
No Serbian leader will agree to Kosovo's independence because nationalism remains the dominant political force in the country. Indeed, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, an apostle of Serbian nationalism, has been trying in every way to undermine Kosovo's interim government. He is rushing to hold a national referendum this month on a new constitution without serious parliamentary debate or the usual public education.
The main purpose of his new constitution is its preamble, which enshrines Kosovo as an inalienable part of Serbia.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanians have proclaimed that they will not accept any tie to Serbia, no matter how tenuous. Throughout the 1990s, they virtually opted out of Serbian-run Kosovo by creating parallel institutions. Their forced mass exodus in 1999 and NATO's subsequent intervention, which ended Serbia's rule and established a quasi-state under UN administration, has made anything other than independence intolerable.
Some time over the next month or two, the Balkan Contact Group -- the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- will consider Ahtisaari's recommendations on Kosovo's final status and possibly propose a solution to the Security Council, which must make the final decision. In public, all Contact Group members have tried to leave the question of Kosovo's final status open, but informally the US and some of its allies have told the two parties that they will propose independence this year.
Some members of the Security Council -- particularly Russia and China -- are opposed to or skeptical of an imposed settlement. Few governments favor dividing up another country's territory, however compelling the circumstances. Whether the Security Council will approve independence largely depends on averting a Russian veto, which will require considerable diplomatic effort.
The nature of the independence bestowed is also important. An independent Kosovo must be secured and its minorities protected. Northern Kosovo, now largely under Belgrade's control, must not be partitioned off in all but name. In the interest of reducing the blow to Serbia, the Security Council must avoid granting independence in ways that are so contorted that the new state cannot function effectively.
If the Security Council fails to reach a decision on final status, it will produce a grave situation -- Kosovo would declare independence unilaterally, and all nations would have to make up their minds whether or not to recognize the new state. If that happens, it is likely that the Serbs of North Kosovo would declare their own independence. At a minimum, Serbia would campaign strongly against recognition.