By Guy Dinmore
Published: December 2 2005 02:00 | Last updated: December 2 2005 02:00
From the muddy fields and torched villages of Kosovo six years ago, the struggle of its Albanian majority for independence from Serbia is moving to the political battlegrounds of Washington.
Although Martti Ahtisaari, the special United Nations envoy and former Finnish president, launched his shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans last week in a bid to negotiate a final settlement, all sides recognise the critical importance of lobbying the US now that the Bush administration has decided it will actively push the process to a resolution.
All sides involved in the "final status" talks also agree that the status quo is untenable. Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999 when Nato bombed Serbia and occupied the province to halt waves of ethnic cleansing and killings of the non-Serb population, made up mostly of Muslim Albanians.
Since then, about half the Serb minority has fled the historic cradle of their Christian Orthodox heritage, as ethnic grievances simmer and sometimes explode into violence.
Last month, in the august settings of Washington's elite Metropolitan Club, the "Alliance for a New Kosovo" launched its drive for independence.
Following a well-worn campaign trail, the Kosovo Albanians have a put up a large pool of money, attracted big names among former US officials, brought in a big ticket think-tank and international lobbying company and marshalled their supporters in Congress.
"The only reasonable answer is independence," declared Samuel Hoskinson, president of the Alliance and former deputy head of the National Intelligence Council.
He was joined at the Metropolitan by Frank Carlucci, former defence secretary and emeritus chairman of the Carlyle Group, the private investment firm close to the Bush administration. He warned that Russia, the traditional ally of the Serbs, had fired a warning shot in opposition. "But this is a road we have to travel," he said.
Other former officials suggested the US might have to resort to an "imposed settlement" if Serbia did not yield from its position of "more than autonomy, less than independence".
The conference was co-sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a prestigious think-tank whose analyst, Janusz Bugajski, advises the Alliance.
It has also hired Jefferson Waterman International, a lobbying company. Unannounced behind the scenes, however, was the man who made it all happen - Behgjet Pacolli, head of the Swiss-based Mabetex Group and possibly the world's richest Albanian. A resident of Lugano, Mr Pacolli is seeking to convert his wealth into political influence in his native Kosovo, where he grew up in poverty.
Now he numbers the rich and famous among his friends, including former presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton.
Serbia has not yet found the right lobbying company to fight its cause, although President Boris Tadic has employed RSLB, a Washington consultancy, in his capacity as head of the Democratic party. RSLB is run by a group of Israeli businessmen and former officials and military figures, including Yuval Rabin, son of the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. This has raised speculation that the Serbian side hopes to attract the support of Washington's influential Jewish lobby groups.
The battle is also being played out in Congress, where Serbia is immediately handicapped on the war crimes issue. As long as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the two Bosnian Serbs wanted for war crimes, remain at large then Serbia will struggle to win explicit backing.
Nonetheless, the Serbs have recently won some skirmishes on Capitol Hill where they have established a Serbian caucus. Last month, the Senate approved a non-binding resolution sponsored by George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican, that urged Kosovo and Serbia to compromise.
Serbs also see victory in a decision by Tom Lantos, a veteran California Democrat in the House, not to try to push through a resolution backing independence. Prominent committee members argued against the proposed bill a year ago. A spokeswoman for Mr Lantos said he had decided to let the Bush administration "pursue its new course" over Kosovo.
Officially the administration says it takes no position on the "final status" talks but that it will not let the matter drag on. Together with the European powers, it says Kosovo cannot be partitioned, or merge with Albania or parts of Macedonia.
But European diplomats strongly believe the US favours "conditional" or "supervised" independence. This would entail Kosovo remaining a ward of the international community for several years until given full statehood and eventual membership of Nato and the European Union. Serbia - and probably an independent Montenegro if it votes to leave its union with Serbia - would be given the same inducements.
Nicholas Burns, the senior State Department official handling the Balkan file, told a Senate hearing: "I made clear to them [the Kosovo Albanian leadership] that independence must be earned".
While some interpreted this to mean the US favoured such an outcome, Mr Burns also said neither side would get everything it wanted and that peace required compromises.
Andy Verich of the non-profit Serbian Unity Congress points out that ethnic Serbs, a large diaspora, played a role in George W. Bush's 2004 election victory. He counters suggestions that the White House has already made its mind up over Kosovo. "It's not all over yet," he says.