WASHINGTON, Jan 5 (AFP) -
Formal talks set to get underway in earnest later this month on the final status of Kosovo will almost certainly lead to independence for the mainly ethnic Albanian Serb province, analysts say.
"When you look at conditional independence it's probably the only game in town because the other alternatives are simply unattractive," said John Norris, head of the Washington office of the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts around the globe.
"Nobody wants to see Kosovo partitioned ..., there is no support for forming a greater Albania and certainly there is no sense that Kosovo can simply be shoehorned back into Serbia," added Norris, speaking at a conference here Wednesday on the future of Kosovo organized by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
He and other experts said the real challenge facing those taking part in the UN-mediated talks will be getting the Serbs and Albanians to stop bickering about an outcome that is considered a foregone conclusion and start tackling crucial issues.
For Kosovo's Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province's two-million population, that means displaying efficient governance and working to better protect the rights of the Serb minority.
Nationalist Serb diehards for their part must face the inevitable and focus on the prospect of Belgrade eventually joining the European Union and NATO's Partnership for Peace Program.
"The Albanians and the Serbs could wreap a terrific windfall right now by standing up, pointing to concrete measures of how they can work together," Norris said. "The international community would shower money and opportunity on them if they did so."
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that violence was likely to break out in the province if conditional independence was denied or delayed.
Conditional independence means that the province, which has been administered by the United Natons since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign halted a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanians, would cease to be part of Serbia-Montenegro but that restrictions on its independence would remain during a transitional period.
"If Kosovo is gonna make it it needs to get the institutions of governance up and running," Kupchan said, adding that much also needed to be done to protect Serb patrimonial sites and the estimated 100,000 Serbs who live in the province.
Kupchan also suggested that the controversial idea of partitioning Kosovo should not be excluded during the upcoming status talks.
"It may provide room for compromise, it may get Belgrade to say 'let us have northern Kosovo and we'll sign off'," Kupchan said. "And two, I don't think the international community should rule it out unless it is prepared to face the reality of what it means to reintegrate northern Kosovo into Kosovo proper.
"It means a lot of money and a lot of troop presence and I'm not sure the EU or the US has the stomach ... to see that through."
Partitioning Kosovo, however, has all but been excluded by the international community both in public statements made by senior diplomats and in behind the scenes talks that have taken place in recent weeks.
Joining those talks have been members of the Contact Group, set up to coordinate policy during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who has been chosen by the UN to head the status negotiations on Kosovo.
Diplomats and experts say that there was general consensus during the talks that conditional independence was the best solution for the province.
The tough part, they say, will be getting the Serbs and Albanians to mutually agree to that.
"It's very important that this not be seen as a diktat on either side," said John Hulsman, an expert on European affairs at the Heritage Foundation. "The reality is if they don't wish to make peace on reasonable terms, that peace will not be made."