Kosovo steps back from 'unilateral' independence

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are seeking international support for a probable declaration of independence. It follows the passing of a UN deadline for talks on the province's future. Russia wants more negotiations, saying a deal may still be possible.

Negotiations on Kosovo's future have been going on for four months. It was assumed they would be completed by December 10.  But Monday night may prove to be an anti-climax.

As the deadline approached, some of the more radical Albanian leaders were calling for a unilateral declaration of independence. That was strongly opposed by Belgrade.

But the Troika of negotiators, made up of Russia, the U.S. and the EU, managed to ease tensions.  In order to give Kosovo’s Albanian authorities time to reconsider, they reported the talks' failure three days early.

Now the ethnic Albanians are working on a co-ordinated declaration instead of a unilateral one. They are trying to get the EU and the US on their side, and to get at least some agreement with Russia.

Moscow, whose position is absolutely crucial, has called for further talks, saying “a solution is possible”. Russia is backing Serbia, insisting on a solution acceptable to both Serbia and the breakaway province. The U.S. and many EU states support Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.

Georgy Engelgardt from the Slavonic Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is warning of the consequences of Kosovon independence.  He says if it is recognized by major countries “it will set a clear precedent for many prospects of that kind, not only in former Soviet Union.”, he said.

“Spain and China are against Kosovo's independence, having to deal with their own separatists in attention,” he said.

A similar concern was expressed earlier by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Fears of instability

Meanwhile, there are fears of instability and clashes between Serbs and Albanians. A 16-thousand strong NATO peacekeeping force keeps the sides apart in Kosovo.

Speaking in Cyprus, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Kosovo could erupt into ethnic violence if the province declares independence.

The town of Mitrovica, split along ethnic lines, is a symbol of division in Kosovo.

The bridge over the Ibar River is a dividing line: the Serbs on one side, ethnic Albanians on the other. The two parts of the town live parallel lives, each with its own institutions.

Nikola Kabasnic, a lawyer working in Mitrovica's Serbian courts, disagrees with the view that Serbs are to blame for the conflict.  He fears for the future.

“I’m not sure that we’ll stay here if Kosovo gets independence. We know that they’ll start with some violence against the Serbs because they want to finish what they started in 1999,” he said.

The majority of the Serbs in Mitrovica receive civil servant wages from the government in Belgrade.

Yet there is little real employment. Local factories shut down years ago, and no one will invest. Instead a thriving black market deals in drugs and guns.

Most new arrivals to Mitrovica are refugees from other parts of Kosovo.

The career of Nebojsha Jovic from the Serbian National Council was forged during the Kosovo War and the riots in 2004.   Most local politicians have a similar background.  In 2004 several people died and more than three hundred were injured during a stand-off between Serbs and Albanians across the Ibar Bridge. He says the local Serbs will not accept Kosovo independence.

“I’m not advocating war, I’m a parent with two kids”, Nebojsha Jovic said.

But he thinks they will have to employ all political, diplomatic and other means. “Simply, we won't have any other choice,” he added.

Supporters of independence say it's the logical outcome for a region with a 90 per cent Albanian population. They feel this is a fair price for the Serbian ethnic cleansing of the late 1990s.

But Mitrovica's Serbs, most of who were born in Kosovo, see it as anything but fair.