July 27, 2006 12:58 PM
The Contact Group is one of those blandly-titled, anonymous committees of international officials and diplomats whose members are invisible and whose utterances often inscrutable. They also have the power to change the world we live in.
Once established, such committees are difficult to dismantle. Almost by a process of inertia, they tend to subsist quietly just in case they are needed for problems related or unrelated to the crisis whence they originally sprang.
The group in question, comprising officials from Europe, the US, and Russia, was initially created to inject a note of consensus into the cacophonous shambles that passed for international diplomacy in the Bosnian emergency of the mid-90s.
In the past year or so the Contact Group has been resurrected to grapple with what is probably the last piece of the post-Yugoslav jigsaw - carving an independent state of Kosovo out of the depressed wreckage of modern Serbia.
Last Monday at a Habsburg-era palais in Vienna, the leaders of Serbia and the (Albanian) leaders of Kosovo met for the first time since the Kosovo war of 1998-99 to grapple with the dilemma of what is to be Kosovo's status.
Predictably, there was no meeting of minds. The meeting itself was the message. Simply getting the rival leaders around the same table was a success for the Finnish fixer, Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland who is the special UN envoy for the Kosovo talks.
Sitting unobtrusively at the same table were several anonymous chaps from the Contact Group.
Of all the national and political conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart, Kosovo is probably the simplest and most intractable. Everywhere else - in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, the conflicts were among and between southern Slavs who shared a language and a culture and often inter-married.
The Serbian-Kosovar conflict, by contrast, is starkly ethnic, between two quite distinct cultures of Orthodox Slav Serbs and nominally Muslim Albanians who have no intention of living together.
That there was no agreement in Vienna was a racing certainty in advance. There probably never will be. Does it matter? To the extent that a negotiated settlement agreed by the parties is infinitely preferable to a "solution" imposed from outside, the answer has to be yes.
But will it make any difference in the long run to what happens to Kosovo? Not really. This is because the script for the Vienna talks has essentially been written in advance by the diplomats of the Contact Group. To all intents and purposes, the broad outlines of the new Kosovo dispensation were determined even before the negotiations started in February. The negotiations are about putting flesh on the bones of the Contact Group blueprint, filling in the details and taking account of some, but only some, of what the local players have to say.
This makes for a strange negotiation. In eight rounds of talks, there has not been a semblance of agreement by both sides on issues such as how to decentralise government in Kosovo, how many municipalities there should be, how many and in what way ancient Serbian Orthodox monasteries and monuments should be protected.
And yet the UN mediators betray no sense of panic, no sense of urgency, no mood of desperation that things are going badly, no banging of heads and tables to try to force a deal.
This is because in many ways it is a phony negotiation, a going through the motions to try to avoid the unseemly impression that Kosovo's fate is being or already has been decided elsewhere.
The Contact Group's own papers and statements tell the story.
Before the negotiations started in Vienna in February, the group issued a binding set of "guiding principles" for the talks. Firstly, the negotiations could not be blocked and had to be concluded. That means that if the Serbs walk out, as they still could, no one will blink.
The future Kosovo will be multi-ethnic, with extensive rights and self-government for the Serbian minority. "There will be no changes in the current territory of Kosovo" and no partition, as the Serbs would like. That means the Serbs can't take a slice of Kosovo and it also banishes the romance of a so-called Greater Albania, with the Albanians of Kosovo merging with neighbouring Albania proper or with the Albanian majority in neighbouring western Macedonia.
And for the foreseeable future, Kosovo will need to remain an international trusteeship. On the military side, that task falls to Nato. On the civilian and policing side, the UN (running Kosovo since 1999) is to be supplanted by the EU. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, adds Kosovo to his expanding Balkan protectorate. In Brussels, that script too has already been written.
In January, also before the negotiations opened, a Contact Group statement declared that Kosovo would not return to the status of before March 1999 (ie before Nato's air war against Serbia) and warned Serbia that the settlement had "to be acceptable to the people of Kosovo".
Since 90 per cent of Kosovars are demanding nothing but independence, the outcome is pre-ordained. The Serbian leadership is aghast, crying foul at every opportunity, but has been slow to adapt to the new reality.
It is offering extensive home rule to Kosovo. This amounts to a bit more than what obtained in Kosovo under Tito's communist 1974 constitution until Slobodan Milosevic abolished these rights and liberties in the 1980s. In current circumstances, the Serbian offer is a non-starter. If ownership is nine-tenths of the law, the Kosovar Albanians (90% of the population) are home and dry.
In the January statement, the Contact Group said a negotiated settlement was "the best way forward". Implicit here is that it is not the only way forward.
In the absence of an agreement (almost certain), the agreement will be made for them; indeed, it already has been.
Albert Rohan, the retired Austrian diplomat who has been running the Vienna negotiations, said the other day that he did not expect the parties to reach a deal.
"In the autumn we will report to the UN security council on the result of the negotiations and then it's up to the security council to decide what to do."
Mr Rohan sounded quite unruffled. The Serbs, by contrast, were exciteable, demanding he be sacked and also hinting that the entire Ahtisaari mediation should be closed down.
What happens next? The likeliest scenario is that the talks remain deadlocked. Mr Ahtisaari pronounces this sad state of affairs to the security council in September.
The Contact Group then recommends that given the failure of the parties Mr Ahtisaari draw up "a comprehensive proposal for a status settlement" and the Finnish fixer redraws the map of the Balkans, establishing the first ever independent state of Kosovo, albeit an independence hedged with conditions and subject to international supervision.
The security council then rubberstamps the settlement. Last Monday the Contact Group reiterated that all this should be accomplished by the end of the year. "The process must be brought to a close."
Any agreement in Vienna will be a bonus, but not essential to the outcome. The negotiations are more about dotting the i's and crossing the t's on a script written by the Contact Group and Mr Ahtisaari.