Decision time looms on Kosovo

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The Kosovo question is this week moving into its most difficult phase since the 1999 expulsion of the forces of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader.

The United Nations-sponsored talks to bring together Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders have, as expected, ended in failure. As Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary- general, was told in a report last week, there is no possibility of a deal between Belgrade, which insists Kosovo remains Serbia’s, and the ethnic Albanians demanding independence.

Russia, backing Serbia, insists talks must go on. It will not drop its veto of plans – supported by the US and the European Union – for conditional independence. So the EU must take over from the UN as the lead actor in imposing a settlement. And it must do so at this week’s summit for fear that the initiative may slip from big power governments to radicals on the ground.

The Union must this week authorise an EU mission to supervise Kosovo following the UN’s departure. As many EU states as possible must publicly back the conditional independence plan.

Kosovo’s leaders must be warned against unilateral action. They must acknowledge that independence without international support, especially without EU backing, would be very fragile. It would risk putting Kosovo into the hands of extremists.

Moving towards conditional independence will be difficult. Serbs in northern Kosovo will seek partition. Bosnian Serbs might demand independence from their dysfunctional state. Ethnic Albanian minorities in Macedonia are restless. Russia may not refrain from stirring up trouble. The danger of renewed ethnic violence is clear and present.

But further delay is even more dangerous. If Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians act unilaterally, the risks of violence will be far greater than in a managed transition. With no good options on the table, the EU must choose the least bad.

It must minimise the immediate risks by ensuring peacekeeping troops in Kosovo and Bosnia are on alert, by redoubling the monitoring of armed radicals and by reinforcing protection for vulnerable minorities, especially ethnic Serb enclaves in central and southern Kosovo.

Kosovo’s leaders must delay claiming independence until these safeguards are complete, probably early next year. Thereafter, the EU must renew its promises of eventual Union membership to the whole of the Balkans, not least to Kosovo and Serbia. And it must emphasise that membership will come only with peaceful co-existence.

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