Friday, October 27, 2006

Kosovo falls hostage to big power rivalry

By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Published: October 27 2006 18:44 | Last updated: October 27 2006 18:44
The US has sent a special envoy to Kosovo and Serbia to press both sides to keep the peace as the international community prepares to decide the status of the United Nations-run province.

Diplomats and politicians on all sides expect a messy and inconclusive outcome, and fear further ethnic violence in Kosovo with peacekeepers from Nato caught in the middle.

Few believe that Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president acting as UN mediator, can broker a compromise. This weekend Serbian voters are likely to approve by referendum a new constitution reaffirming Kosovo as part of Serbia, while the province’s ethnic Albanian majority overwhelmingly aspires to, and expects, full independence.

The fate of Kosovo – run by the UN and protected by Nato since the 1999 air campaign stopped ethnic cleansing by Serbia – is also hostage to the deteriorating state of relations between the US and Russia. These are complicated by rising tensions in the southern Caucasus and competing interests over Iran and energy resources.

As Russia reasserts itself on the world stage, the US and Europe are wondering what price President Vladimir Putin will exact at the UN Security Council in exchange for consenting to Kosovo’s independence, or whether he will simply block the process completely.

Mr Putin warns that independence for Kosovo would set a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian-backed, separatist enclaves in Georgia. The US insists Kosovo is a “unique” case, thereby also seeking to assuage Chinese concerns over Taiwan and Tibet.

Diplomats expect Mr Ahtisaari will recommend a form of “managed” or “conditional” independence that falls short of full sovereignty, keeping Kosovo under international protection and guidance, possibly for three years.

Should Russia deprive Kosovo of the UN’s blessing for a path to independence, then the Kosovo Albanian government under Agim Ceku, prime minister, may be encouraged by the US to consider making a unilateral declaration of independence.

This heightens the risk that the Serb minority in Kosovo, mostly concentrated in Nato-protected enclaves, would follow suit and declare their own independence or allegiance to Belgrade.

Frank Wisner, the special US envoy, is expected to urge Belgrade to prevent any such breakaway move. Diplomats say his mission is to tell Kosovo and Serbia that they must accept Mr Ahtisaari’s “compromise imposed solution”.

Dimitri Simes, head of the Nixon Center think-tank which has close contact with Moscow, says Russia’s position on Kosovo is hardening but it may not have decided how it will vote at the UN.

“That depends on the overall status of the US-Russia relationship, the results of World Trade Organisation negotiations and the forthcoming meetings in November between Presidents Bush and Putin, first in Moscow and then in Hanoi,” he said.

But he warned that it might be difficult for Mr Putin to back down over Kosovo.

“The Russian leadership, including President Putin personally, is making it increasingly clear to the Bush administration that Georgia is becoming a defining issue in the US-Russia relationship the way Iran and North Korea are on the American side.”

Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation security think-tank, said Mr Putin had “let the genie out of the bottle with nationalism” and warned of the dangers posed by a Russia seeking to regain its Soviet-era domination of the Caucasus and its strategic oil and gas pipelines.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, kept making concessions only for Russia to keep “upping the ante”, Mr Howard said.

It was possible the Bush administration would seek to delay Kosovo’s bid for independence and Georgia’s bid for Nato membership to keep Russia on board over Iran and North Korea, he added.

Speaking of the deadlock facing Mr Ahtisaari, one Kosovo Albanian politician commented: “We are waiting for the real talks to begin – between the US and Russia.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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