Americans and Europeans must work together if they are to avoid the partition of the protectorate and the destabilisation of the whole region.
By Daniel Serwer in Washington
The UN's appointment of the former Finnish president, Marti Ahtisaari, to conduct negotiations on Kosovo's final status indicates that the last remaining war and peace issue in the Balkans is to get attention.
Will Kosovo - a Serbian province with an overwhelmingly Albanian population - become independent, remain part of Serbia, or be divided? Unfortunately the prospects for a negotiated solution are not good, despite Mr Ahtisaari's considerable talents.
While successful in stabilising a troubled part of the Balkans, the UN administration of Kosovo has lasted too long and has failed to bring prosperity or security to the poorest and most ethnically divided part of Europe. After the UN's failures in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early Nineties, the organisation has no track record of success in handling Balkan issues that require it to prevail against strong political forces - especially those that involve sovereignty.
The political stew in Belgrade will not help. Serbia's nationalist Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, governs with the support not only of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists but also with the backing of the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is also in The Hague, accused of war crimes during the Nineties.
Serbia's nationalist aspirations continue to upset its own minorities and unsettle its neighbours, Croatia and Macedonia and its partner in the State Union, Montenegro. Mr Kostunica warns that if the Kosovo issue is not settled in Belgrade's favour, elections will bring anti-democratic forces to power. He also hints at the destabilisation of Serbia's other neighbour, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the large Serb community may demand independence.
Belgrade says it will concede maximum autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia but it is not clear what this means, as Belgrade would not want the 1.8 million Kosovo Albanians to circulate freely in Serbia, vote in Serbian elections, or serve in top government positions.
The only other compromise Belgrade has been willing to contemplate is ethnic division, with Serbs and Albanians each receiving their own territory. But this could destabilise both Bosnia and Macedonia, where local minorities could demand similar treatment.
The political climate in Pristina will not help either. For Kosovo Albanians, the only issue is independence. Some claim Kosovo is already independent and only needs international recognition, others say Kosovo should negotiate independence with the United States and European Union but not with Belgrade, and others say it should declare independence unilaterally. Yet others want to gain independence by force of arms. No Kosovo Albanian negotiating team can return home without a decision that it can call independence.
However, the Albanians have undermined their cause by mistreating the Kosovo Serb minority, which lives in fear and seeks Belgrade's protection. When Serbs return to Albanian-majority areas in Kosovo, they face language difficulties, job discrimination, economic deprivation, ethnic threats and violence. Belgrade controls Serbian-majority northern Kosovo and several enclaves, which it hopes to hold onto when Kosovo's final status is decided.
Only a united effort of the US and EU - not the UN on its own - can overcome Serbian and Albanian resistance, prevent partition and find a solution. This formula worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Dayton accords, signed 10 years ago, and in Kosovo, when NATO halted the expulsion of the Albanians in 1999, and in Macedonia in 2001, when a joint effort ended an Albanian uprising.
But it is difficult for the Europeans and Americans to mount a united effort. So far they have agreed to exclude partition or the union of Kosovo with Albanian-populated territory in Macedonia and Albania but without any clear alternative plan.
Washington, preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and Iran, has more important issues than Kosovo to resolve in the Security Council, where Russia and China - mindful of their own internal problems with Chechnya and Tibet - will resist concessions to a province seeking independence. George Bush's administration, which opposes independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, sees Serbia as the pivotal state in the Balkans. Letting the UN - whose members are sovereign states - handle Kosovo gives Belgrade the benefit of the doubt and limits American risks.
Brussels, distracted by difficulties in approving the European constitution and in absorbing new members, does not want to promise early membership to Serbia, though this is a vital "carrot" in the final status negotiations over Kosovo. The EU is split on the status issue, with Britain and Germany prepared to accept independence but France and Italy opposed. The lowest common denominator is to hand it over to the UN.
Possible UN failure is foreshadowed in its own recent report on whether Kosovo is ready for a status decision. This suggested a vague "next" status, hemmed in with conditions.
But such an attempt to fudge the issue could lead to Albanian violence. A Serbian military effort to protect the Serbs in northern Kosovo might then follow, especially as the Serbian army and police are not entirely under civilian control. The result would be partition, Belgrade's fall-back position all along.
A violent denouement in Kosovo may barely register on the Richter scale of current international conflicts but would still be a blow to American and European prestige.
Prevention would be far less burdensome than fixing it after the fact. International intervention in the Balkans, which has been relatively successful (and has benefited large local Muslim communities), should not be allowed to collapse in chaos, so setting a bad example for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brussels and Washington need to give the UN what it needs to succeed: a clear and united decision on Kosovo's status, and the backing to make it stick.
Daniel Serwer is vice-president and director of peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace, where he has trained both Serbs and Albanians in negotiation skills.