Britain and Russia will today join the other UN Security Council members to discuss the vexed issue of Kosovo's territorial status. It follows the end of a four-month period of UN-sponsored negotiations between the Serbs and the Kosovan Albanians that has so far failed to achieve an agreement.
After the bloodletting in the region less than a decade ago, it is an anxious time for the world community. Few would disagree with the British Foreign Secretary's desire to secure "a comprehensive solution for the whole of the western Balkans". Both Britain and Russia are united in wanting a peaceful and permanent settlement.
The fact is, however, that we do have very different ideas as to how that settlement should be achieved. From Russia's perspective, it is not only about the future nationality of the 2 million Kosovans who already live in relative autonomy within Serbia. It is about the principle of territorial integrity, the legitimacy of international law and the authority of the international system.
Throughout the world not least in what we refer to as "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union unilateral independence for Kosovo would risk setting off a chain reaction of secessionist claims. Even within the EU, several countries have signalled their disquiet at the precedent an independent Kosovo would set, knowing that it would reinvigorate and legitimise separatist movements within their own borders. And in the Balkans, the people of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina may well determine that they should become a part of Serbia, contributing to a permanently shifting kaleidescope of new states in the region. Once the principle of self-determination has been established as being above the principle of territorial integrity, it will be hard to argue why any territory within any nation state should not be able to declare independence.
Furthermore, fundamental tenets of international law are at stake. UN Security Council resolution 1244, which was passed unanimously less than 10 years ago, acknowledged unequivocally the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and, consequently, Serbia. This primacy of international law explains why the UN mission in Kosovo has been compelled to strike down a series of independence declarations by the ethnic Albanian Assembly since 1999. As long as the UN Security Council resolution remains in force, any declaration of independence will be illegal.
Those countries willing to recognise Kosovo outside the UN need to appreciate how their actions would fundamentally weaken the international system, without conferring on an independent Kosovo any additional legitimacy. No precedent exists for the creation of a newly formed state by a committee of nations against the will of the sovereign power. In the words of the Cypriot foreign minister, Erato Kozakou Markoullis, "The precedent that this would create would undermine the international system of legality that exists in the political and legal systems around the world." If we believe in the importance of operating within the rule of law, recognising an independent Kosovo is not an option.
So what should we do? How can progress on the complex but critical issue of Kosovo be made? Most importantly, we need to continue the negotiation process between Belgrade and Pristina. This means removing the artificial deadlines that have been imposed, allowing further discussions to take place. The main reason cited for fast-tracking Kosovan independence is the threat of ethnic Albanian violence against Serbian enclaves and international representatives. No successful or lasting settlement can be dictated by fear.
Just as critically, those discussions must take place without the interference of foreign capitals. It is little wonder that the eminently workable models of "Hong Kong-China" and the Aland islands in Finland put forward by Belgrade, guaranteeing maximum autonomy to Kosovo, was rejected out of hand by Pristina. Just a few weeks before formal discussions started between the Serbs and Kosovan Albanians, Washington made its views clear on the value of "endless dialogue on a subject that we've already made up our minds on". It did little to motivate Pristina to find a suitable compromise solution.
Let us not forget that the Bosnian war of the 1990s was no less complex, and the passions no less keenly felt, than the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Yet the relevant parties were able to hammer out an acceptable agreement at Dayton. If it was achievable for Slobodan Milosevic in November 1995, there is no reason why reaching an agreement should be beyond the government of Serbia.
This week, the UN Security Council has perhaps the last opportunity to unite on a common position and pull back from setting off a process which will have consequences far beyond those intended. The options for a peaceful settlement for Kosovo have not been exhausted. Until they are, negotiations must continue.
The writer is the Russian Ambassador to London