By Guy Dinmore in Washington and Daniel Dombey in London
>Published: March 14 2006 20:31 | Last updated: March 14 2006 20:31
Russia and China have told the US that they will not block the independence of Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province, according to western diplomats.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, discussed the issue with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in Washington last week and was told Moscow would not stand in the way of independence, the officials said. Russia and China would probably abstain in a proposed UN resolution that would grant independence.
Kosovo, with its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority, has been a ward of the UN since Nato forces bombed Serbia to halt “ethnic cleansing” in 1999 and then took control of the province. But the debate has entered a new phase with the start of UN-brokered negotiations to decide Kosovo’s final status.
The issue is particularly sensitive since Serbia, which has offered Kosovo autonomy rather than independence, is also involved in a face-off with the international community over General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb war crimes indictee, who is still at large. The death last week of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s former president, has added to the heady brew.
The US and UK are pushing for Serbia to accept that Kosovo will become independent, while Russia, which had previously worried that the province would set a precedent for its own republic of Chechnya, has scaled down its objections.
The officials, who asked not to be named, said the Bush administration had persuaded Moscow and Beijing that independence for the Serbian province was “unique” and would not set a precedent for Chechnya or for the Chinese-claimed territories of Taiwan and Tibet.
However, analysts said some in Moscow wanted a better deal with Washington that might leave open the possibility of a Kosovo-type solution for other regions, including Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, which is backed by Russia.
Last week Jack Straw, the UK foreign secretary, said Kosovo’s independence was “almost inevitable”. But Philippe Douste-Blazy, his French counterpart, stuck closer to the European Union’s official line by saying that negotiations should not be prejudged”.
The EU has also told Serbia it has until the end of this month to increase co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia over the detention and transfer of Gen Mladic.