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Kosovo and the Balkans: Independence Day Looms

Risto Karajkov, Bologna, Italy, February 14, 2008

Two Kosovo Albanian men are seen reflected on a billboard with the poster of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo, in the center of Pristina on Feb. 13, 2008. (Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP-Getty Images)

Kosovo is counting days, even hours, to its declaration of independence. It is happening. A few sources pointed to Feb. 17 as "D" day. Some said perhaps the 18th. Last week, the province's new prime minister, Hashim Taci, hinted, "That was the last weekend before the declaration of independence."

Under agreement with its Western supporters, Kosovo expects a prompt and coordinated response by the international community. Upon declaration, the United States and major European states should promptly recognize its independence. Taci expects up to 100 countries to recognize Kosovo within days.

The West waited for the outcome of the Serbian presidential elections last week before moving to the final phase of this process. It was reasonably expected that with a moderate president in office things would go smoother. Pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic beat radical Tomislav Nikolic by a few votes, which was a favorable development, but perhaps not by as much as was hoped.

The European Union wanted to sign a political deal with Serbia right after reelection, offering a fast track to rapprochement, a visa liberalization deal, and a few other sweeteners for the bitter pill of Kosovo. Even though Tadic's party was in favor of signing the deal, hard line Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica succeeded in blocking the process. Kostunica called the political agreement offered by the European Union a scam.

The European Union, which is set to deploy a military mission in independent Kosovo, will now have to do it without any political support in Belgrade. In the meantime, Serbia, though with some political restraint, is swaying between early elections and declaring a state of emergency.

Time closed in but it made things no clearer. Nobody can tell the course things will take. A recent United States intelligence report foresaw bleak times ahead of the Balkans (again); families of foreign military personnel in Kosovo are being evacuated; a bomb went off in Belgrade the other day. A former Albanian guerilla member from Macedonia, commander Hoxha, says he controls the village of Tanusevci on the Macedonian-Kosovo border, and he wants to secede it from Macedonia and merge it to Kosovo. Many radicals definitely see an interest in an escalation of violence.

Russia is angry and continuously reminds the West will have to bear the consequences of this precedent in international law. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov suggested at a high profile security conference in Munich last weekend that Kosovo opens the Pandora Box, and hinted that the European Union should now also recognize Northern Cyprus. Russia said it would support Serbia and consider anew its relations with countries that recognize Kosovo.

Serbia said it would respond to Kosovo's secession resolutely but that it would not use military force. It plans to cut the power supply to the province, press charges against countries that recognize it, impose diplomatic sanctions, and other measures it would not reveal.

Yet, that is just on the surface of things. What looks by this point in time quite certain is that a declaration of independence will be followed by a declaration of autonomy by the Serbs in the north of the province.

This is the critical variable as it could be the beginning of a de facto partition.

Both Serbia and Kosovo flatly turned down the tacit offer of partition a few months back. Yet clearly, it can easily re-emerge. If this course gains political relevance (even without considering the violence that can quickly spiral out of control), the risks to the region amplify. Macedonia, with a sizable Albanian community itself, and Bosnia and Herzegovina can enter the equation. There would be radicals in Macedonia who would think the time has come for secession of the Albanian lands there. Serbs in the Republic of Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, could feel entitled to get what the Kosovars got.

It is domino effect theory at its worst. And, according to some, in particular Russia, it would be just the beginning of secessions the world over.

For those who remember Samuel Huntington's ominous book Clash of Civilizations the Balkans is one of the possible hotspots that can trigger global cultural mayhem.

Putting gloom aside, it does not need to happen. If Kosovo were recognized by a huge number of countries, as planned, it would become a sovereign reality in international relations, though with delayed United Nations recognition. Serbia, for all its pain, would be smart not to enter into another devastating period of isolation, after all the wars in the 90's. It also takes some restraint and willpower to act quickly on the ground to prevent large-scale violence. The domino stops there.

Not only is this scenario more desirable, it is also more likely. This is what the West reckons with.

Yet the plot still climaxes. An unraveling is imminent.

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