- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

The world appears certain to get a new nation this weekend, but even the most ardent supporters of Kosovo — led by the United States — are uneasy about what will happen after the province formally declares its independence from Serbia.

Serbia, backed strongly by Russia, vows to fight the loss of what it considers the cradle of its culture, and the region is braced for more diplomatic wrangling and even violence.

Soren Jessen-Petersen, the Danish diplomat who was the U.N. special envoy to Kosovo from mid-2004 to mid-2006, backs independence but said he is uncertain about the outcome.

“No doubt the process is going to be messy, it’s going to be difficult,” said Mr. Jessen-Petersen, now a visiting scholar at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

“In such a fragile environment right now, it doesn’t take a lot to spark an incident that can spiral out of control,” he said.

The formal declaration by Kosovo’s government, dominated by ethnic Albanians, is expected Sunday. The United States and major powers of the European Union including Britain, France and Germany will recognize the new state quickly. The interim government has appropriated $15 million to mark the day, but plans to keep the celebration low-key for fear of provoking the province’s unhappy Serbian minority.

Officials from the 17,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, which includes about 1,400 U.S. troops, insist they are prepared to deal with any incidents.

“We are intensifying our state of alert and activities to monitor the situation, using intelligence means, more patrols and greater visibility,” Col. Bertrand Bonneau, spokesman for the international force, said in Pristina.

Major questions still hang over the future of Kosovo as it formally announces its break from Belgrade.

The province has been in a state of diplomatic limbo since the 1999 NATO air war that drove the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from the province. The ethnic Albanian majority vows it will never again accept rule from Belgrade, and has chafed at rule by a U.N.-led administration while repeated attempts to negotiate a split have failed.

Serbia argues that independence amounts to the taking of land from a sovereign state without its permission. Russia has opposed a Security Council resolution blessing the breakup, and the fledgling Kosovo state will be barred from the United Nations and certain other international groupings.

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week called Kosovo statehood “immoral and illegal.”

Belgrade yesterday took the pre-emptive step of declaring that it considers any actions by the proposed government in Pristina illegitimate.

“We will not let it exist for a second, and it must be made legally null and void from the moment the illegal declaration is made by the condemned terrorists,” said nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Bishop Artemije, spiritual leader of Kosovo’s estimated 130,000 Orthodox Serbs, said he feared for his flock and for the scores of Orthodox monasteries and holy places sprinkled throughout the province. “My people are frightened and can never accept this illegal act,” he said, but added that Kosovar Serbs will not resist violently.

The EU states of Cyprus, Romania and Spain face separatist movements of their own and are worried about the “Kosovo precedent.”

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, on a Washington visit this week, said, “We in Athens … do not share this haste” to grant Kosovo independence over Serbia’s objections.

But Mr. Jessen-Petersen said the time to act had come.

“The simple reality is that, if you kept talking for 20 or 30 or 50 years, Serbia would never agree to allow Kosovo to go and the Kosovars would never agree to remain part of Serbia,” the former U.N. envoy said.

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