With all eyes on France and the future of Europe, the fate of Kosovo might seem piffling, but no one is going to die in France as the result of its referendum. As for Kosovo, well, in 1999 we did fight a war over it and yet, when the UN Security Council on Friday gave the green light to a process that could result in its independence -- or in another war -- nobody noticed.
The council's decision is of momentous importance. The big powers have decided that, six years after the end of the Kosovo war, the status quo itself has become a threat to stability.
Kosovo is now a land where more than 90 per cent of the population is ethnic Albanian.
Technically it is part of Serbia, but has been a UN protectorate since the war ended. Kosovo's Albanians desire independence and if Kosovo is forced back to Serbian rule no one doubts they will go back to war.
In March last year, 19 died and 4,000 Serbs and Gypsies were "ethnically cleansed" when Albanians rioted. Diplomats and policymakers realized something had to be done. On Friday that work began.
The UN has asked Kosovo to live up to a series of eight standards, including human rights. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will send a representative to assess the situation and in September, assuming a favorable report, a "status envoy" will be appointed to discuss the final status of the province.
This process will last up to nine months and, assuming Serbs and Albanians cannot agree on whether Kosovo should be independent or not, a Security Council solution might be imposed. It might be some form of what is called "conditional independence." That is to say, a figure with considerable legal powers, such as those held by Lord Ashdown in Bosnia, might be appointed with reserve powers to, for example, sack politicians deemed to be corrupt.
For years, Serbs have wanted nothing less than for their country to be a normal part of Europe again. And things have been going their way. Last weekend the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development held its annual meeting here, and this weekend Serbia is holding its first Erotic Fair.
But Kosovo haunts them. On Friday Serbia handed over to Kosovo the remains of 64 Albanians, along with those of 709 others, in the Batajnica Ministry of Interior base near Belgrade where they were buried by the Milosevic regime during the war.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian President Boris Tadic both say Kosovo is Serbian land and cannot have independence, only "more than autonomy." Both men believe that Kosovo's 2 million Albanians can be persuaded by the international community to give up their dream of independence. But this is a fantasy and it is unlikely Russia will come to their rescue.
Serbians warn that if Kosovo is given independence against their will, then extreme nationalists will come to power and plunge the region into chaos.
But Kosovo Albanians say the same. Without independence, they say, the radicals will begin an intifada, "cleanse" the remaining Serb population and spread war into Serbia and Macedonia.
There is no easy answer. But one thing is certain. If nothing is done, the violence will return and the UN mission could collapse.
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