- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

Russia and the United States may be heading for another clash of wills as a United Nations mediator prepares to issue his recommendation today in Brussels over whether the province of Kosovo should break free from Serbia, a close ally of Moscow.

U.S. and NATO peacekeepers are on heightened alert in Kosovo as U.N. Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari gives a closed-door briefing on Kosovo in Vienna, Austria, to the six-nation “Contact Group” trying to broker a diplomatic deal.

Serbia has vowed to keep control of the province, whose overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian majority is demanding independence. Kosovo has been in political limbo since 1999, when a U.S.-led bombing campaign drove out Serbian troops under President Slobodan Milosevic.

Western diplomats fear Kosovo’s impatient Albanian leadership could resort to violence if their statehood hopes are blocked. About 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers remain in the province eight years after the end of that war.

Mr. Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, spent much of the past year in a fruitless bid to find a formula for Kosovo acceptable to both Belgrade and the Albanian leadership in Pristina.

The United States and the European Union support what are widely expected to be the main outlines of Mr. Ahtisaari’s plan: a “supervised independence” for Kosovo with strong protections for the province’s Serbian minority, allowing Kosovo to set its own foreign policy and join international institutions.

But Russia, a member of the Contact Group, has given virtual veto power over the deal to Serbia, threatening to block any plan not acceptable to Belgrade.

“Russia believes that it is unacceptable that a decision on the status of Kosovo be imposed from the outside,” President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week in a press conference in Sochi, Russia, with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr. Putin and other top Russian officials also warn that giving Kosovo independence without Serbia’s consent would set a “precedent” for other territorial disputes in states of the former Soviet Union, including separatist movements friendly to Moscow in Georgia.

Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said Russia could abstain on a U.N. Security Council vote on Kosovo “in exchange for a Western quid pro quo in some other theater.”

U.S. officials have rejected the idea that Kosovo could be a model for other territorial disputes, such as in Georgia, Moldova or the Armenia-Azerbaijan clash over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Mr. Ahtisaari will not make his recommendations public before briefing Serbian and Kosovar officials Feb. 2. A spokeswoman for the U.N. envoy said yesterday that he plans more negotiations after releasing his plan in hopes of getting both sides to agree.

But Russia’s strong backing in recent days has only emboldened Serbia’s leadership on the Kosovo issue. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that Serbia’s leadership is unanimous in rejecting independence for Kosovo and that it is “irrelevant” what formula Mr. Ahtisaari proposes.

EU and U.S. diplomats had hoped that Serbia’s parliamentary elections last weekend would produce a more moderate, pro-Western government that could push through a compromise on Kosovo.

But the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party was the biggest vote-getter, with 81 seats in the 250-seat parliament, according to official results released in Belgrade yesterday.

Hard bargaining over a new ruling coalition is expected, and could complicate Mr. Ahtisaari’s hopes to sell the new Kosovo proposal.

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