Leading article: Welcome to an independent Kosovo

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The plan presented by the UN special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, yesterday stops short of full and immediate independence for the province of Kosovo, but only just. Kosovo would be able to operate like a state, but its last formal ties with Serbia would not be finally severed. The embryonic state would remain a de facto UN protectorate for at least another year.

Predictably, this solution is too timid for the Kosovo government and far too ambitious for Serbia and its Slav patron, Russia. Both have the capacity to make trouble: Serbia by fomenting unrest among Kosovo's Serbs; Russia by withholding its endorsement.

Russia and Serbia, however, would be well advised to swallow their pride and accept Kosovo's advance towards statehood. The time when frontiers were considered inviolate is no more, and has not been since the collapse of the Soviet empire. Any alternative is likely to involve violence, or the revival of Kosovan support for a Greater Albania. A small but secure and stable Kosovo is surely preferable.

Kosovo for its part must reciprocate by granting the sort of autonomy, equal rights and security guarantees to its Serb minority that Belgrade denied in its time to the Albanians of Kosovo. Its leaders must show that they are ready and able to observe international norms. Only then should full statehood be granted.

At the same time, the other members of the UN Contact Group must recognise that Russia's misgivings are not just a matter of Slav solidarity. Moscow fears that independence for Kosovo could revive demands for independence from territories inside Russia, such as Chechnya. It will not be placated with UN assurances that Kosovo sets no precedent.

There clearly could be repercussions for Russia - but not only for Russia. The Russian and other ethnic enclaves in former Soviet republics, such as Georgia and Moldova, could be emboldened to enhance their status. The implications could even extend to Scotland, were it ever to seek independence and EU membership in its own right.

The test in each case, however, must be the political will of the majority, the viability of the would-be state and the need to minimise the risk of violence. On these criteria, the case for Kosovo's independence is unimpeachable. Russia cannot be allowed to use possible repercussions as a pretext for denying the Kosovans their rights.

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