Western powers and U.N. officials administering Kosovo must this year decide on the province's status or run the risk of letting the Balkans slide back into crisis, a respected think-tank warned Friday.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, cautioned in a 43-page report that time is running out to decide the fate of Kosovo, which has been under U.N. administration since a 1999 NATO air war stopped a Serb crack down on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.
Kosovo officially remains part of Serbia-Montenegro. The province's ethnic Albanian majority wants independence, while its Serb minority wants it to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia.
"Either 2005 sees major progress on a future status solution that consolidates peace and development, or the danger is that Kosovo will return to conflict and generate regional instability," said the report, which was released to The Associated Press on Friday, three days ahead of its scheduled publication date.
The report warned that Kosovo Albanians are frustrated with the unresolved status and unless the international community begins "delivering this year on ... independence aspirations," they may act unilaterally.
"In such circumstances, given the dismal record of Kosovo Albanians with regard to minorities, Kosovo's Serbs may call upon Serbia's armed forces to protect them, and the region could be plunged into new turmoil," it said.
Some 200,000 Serbs and other minorities fled Kosovo following revenge attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists after the 1999 conflict.
In the report, the ICG proposes that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appoint a special envoy to help reach a deal that would be endorsed at an at an international conference.
"If Kosovo's new government is to lead its people to the independence destination they desire, there must be complete respect and protection for Kosovo's Serb and other minorities," the report says.
The U.N. has said talks on the final status depend on the province reaching standards on minority protection, respect for human rights and return of those displaced after the war. The U.N. plans later this year to review how far the government has come in meeting those benchmarks before deciding on whether to start final-status talks.
The report says that before the start of talks, all parties should agree that Kosovo not be allowed to unite with the neighboring Albania; that there be no partition of the province of 2 million, and that some sort of international presence remain even if a deal is reached.
"The agenda set out above requires political courage as well as energy," ICG said. "But the alternative is worse."