Thu, May 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New war fears loom over Kosovo as Moscow threatens veto

By Peter Beaumont  /  THE OBSERVER , PRISTINA, KOSOVO

In Kosovo now there is only one question. What will the Russians do? It is asked in smoky cafes, on the countless building sites, and in government offices. It is asked by the majority Albanians, hoping for independence for this divided former Serbian province, who fear the Russians will torpedo the dream for which they fought the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999.

And it is asked by the minority Serbs, who ruled Kosovo for so long and regard it as their cultural and spiritual heartland, trapped in their ever-shrinking enclaves in the south and in their last stronghold in the north around the city of Mitrovica. Their fear is that their Slav ally, which opposes the independence plan drawn up by UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari, might at the last moment abandon them through the pragmatism of international diplomacy.

It is an issue troubling the functionaries of the international community who oversee Kosovo and who are anxious to see an endgame in sight eight years after the war in Kosovo was ended by NATO's bombing of Serbia and Belgrade.

What makes Russian thinking so important is that the Ahtisaari plan has now been tabled by the US before the UN Security Council. A point of no return has been reached. And, crucially, a Russia that is resurgent in its sense of its international importance and hostile to both the US and the EU over issues as diverse as criticism of its democracy and a planned missile shield for eastern Europe, has not only rejected the resolution calling for UN endorsement of the Ahtisaari plan, but has warned it might exercise its veto if there is a vote.

Instead, Russia is now circulating its own counter-proposal for Kosovo that would keep it within the "general sovereignty" claimed by Belgrade and put off the question of Kosovo's final status, risking, some say, renewed violence.

A crisis eight years in the making is unfolding with a giddy inevitability. For while the fighting in Kosovo stopped in 1999, the conflict itself, as diplomats here acknowledged, has never really ended. All that has been held in check has been forced to the surface again.

For Kosovo's Albanians, fired up by the repeated promises of their political leaders, there is the prospect that independence may be only weeks away. It is a prospect that has forced Serbs to confront the fact that it may now likely require some act of partition on their part, a gesture that risks retaliation and expulsion of the most vulnerable Serb pockets. Suddenly all is to play for.

"During these past years we have made Kosovo. It is done," insisted Kosovoan Prime Minister Agim Ceku, former chief of staff of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army. "We have built functioning institutions. We have built our vision for the future. The worst case scenario now is a lack of clarity, an ambiguity."

"If you ask me what I think the risks of partition are at the moment," said Naim Rashiti of the International Crisis Group, which issued a report last week warning of the risk of violence if the Ahtisaari plan was abandoned," I would say 50-50. And I am worried that, if there is partition, it has the potential to be very dirty, precisely because no one has any plan B."

In an entity whose economy has survived for almost a decade on international handouts, remittances from family members working abroad, and a grey and black economy -- the latter based in large part on smuggling -- independence has become a kind of spell that for its Kosovo Albanian believers promises to transform a landscape of chronic underemployment and pitiful wages.

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