The European Union is about to move into uncharted waters, facing a major test of its credibility over the existence of a state only 30 miles from its border, as Kosovo prepares to declare its independence from Serbia.
International mediators, who have just completed a final and fruitless attempt to secure a negotiated agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on independence, are putting together a report to the UN secretary general. Their findings will trigger the endgame of a diplomatic dance that began in 1999 when Kosovo was placed under UN administration, laying the groundwork for eventual independence.
The UN moved in after an 11-week Nato bombing campaign put an end to Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against the ethnic Albanian majority in the province which the Serbs see as the cradle of their culture.
"This report will conclude that the two sides have not been able to reach agreement," the EU mediator Wolfgang Ischinger said in Belgrade this week. The report, which must be submitted by next Monday, would not prescribe a solution, or a way forward. "We are not making any proposals that could surprise anyone," he said.
The failure of his three-man mission had been expected, with the Kosovo Albanian leadership continuing to insist on independence, while Serbia will not countenance anything other than broad autonomy for the province of two million which has a population of 100,000 Serbs. Serbia is backed by Russia, which rejected an internationally approved plan last July by threatening a UN veto; the US and much of Europe, including Britain, support the Kosovar Albanians.
The short report by the troika will summarise the various proposals rejected by each or both sides, ranging from partition to confederation and a "status neutral" plan which made no mention of independence. But it will not make recommendations on the path ahead.
It is not a question of whether Kosovo will declare independence but when, although the new prime minister, the former separatist guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci, who is close to the Americans, says any move will be coordinated with the EU and US. European diplomats do not expect a declaration before mid-January, although one warned of a "rocky road" amid fears of violence from armed militias which runs the risk of spilling across Kosovo's borders after next Monday's deadline.
Mr Ischinger says the Serbian government and Kosovo Albanian leadership have pledged not to resort to violence, but that could prove to be an empty promise. The Nato chief, General John Craddock, said yesterday that he was ready to send in reinforcements at the first sign of trouble.
The US, as well as Britain, France and Germany and the majority of EU states, hope for a "managed" and co-ordinated declaration of independence, leading to recognition of the state of Kosovo by individual governments. But Kosovars recognise that their independence would not be unfettered, and the best deal on the table remains the plan for internationally supervised independence drawn up by the former Finnish president, Marti Ahtisaari, which was rejected by Serbia and blocked by Russia at the UN.
In other words, Kosovo would continue to be protected by 16,000 Nato troops, and the EU would form the backbone of the international civilian mission which would replace the UN administration. Rights of the Serb minority would be guaranteed.
The UN, US and Europe agree that the status quo is unsustainable, putting the brakes on economic progress and fuelling nationalist feeling the longer independence is delayed. They are pressing for a speedy resolution. But Russia believes strongly that talks on the province's future should continue after the cut-off date of next Monday. The Russian member of the troika, the diplomat Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, said the four months of top-level negotiations by the troika had been the most serious since the 1998-99 conflict, and there was "room for continued negotiation".
He also put Russia back on a collision course with the US and Europe, warning that "the Security Council began considering this question and this question will be finally resolved in the Security Council."
To implement the Kosovo plan without UN approval, European diplomats know the EU will have to be prepared to stand up to Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has not hesitated to confront the West. But the 27-state EU remains divided, with countries such as Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Romania concerned about setting a precedent for separatist movements elsewhere.Reuse content