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Kosovo's hot potato

A U.N. plan for `supervised autonomy' may fire up the province and Serbia. But the approach is right.

January 26, 2007

HERE'S A PLACE you probably haven't thought about much in the last seven years: Kosovo. But the Balkan province is about to make a comeback bid for your attention, and not necessarily in a good way.

The former Yugoslavia, a steaming kettle of ethnic and religious resentments, has been comparatively peaceful since the wars of the 1990s -- not because the region's territorial disputes have been settled but because NATO has kept a close watch on the stove (in the case of Kosovo, with 16,000 troops). But an upcoming United Nations ruling on Kosovo's bid for independence from Serbia stands to set the burner on high.

Kosovo, a province the size of Connecticut, has about 2 million residents, 90% of them ethnic Albanians. It was an autonomous region within the Yugoslav federation until 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic jump-started his career as dictator by asserting Belgrade's authority over what is, for Serbs, a land of nationalist importance. The crackdown led to a Kosovar rebellion nine years later that was ruthlessly suppressed until halted by NATO bombardiers. The region has been under U.N. supervision while the international community fumbles for a more permanent settlement.

That U.N. blueprint will be unveiled privately today in Vienna to the six-nation Contact Group that sets policy for Kosovo -- the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Leaked pieces of the plan seem a bit of a mess. It is expected to propose "supervised autonomy," a sort of "independence lite," watched over by an international monitor. Kosovo will reportedly be allowed to join international organizations such as the U.N. and the World Bank and even maintain a tiny army. But the minority Serb population would largely be self-governed, with direct links to Serbia.

The plan isn't going to please many in proindependence Kosovo, and next to no one in pro-federation Serbia. Anticipation of an unfavorable U.N. recommendation probably helped the ultranationalist Radicals -- led by a Serb awaiting a war crimes trial in The Hague -- win the most votes of any party in Serbia's recent elections.

Yet flawed and temporary as it is, the U.N. compromise is the only practical solution for now. Full independence would mean using the U.N. to dictate and enforce a secession movement. Besides setting bad precedent, it would certainly be vetoed by Russia. And Kosovars would sooner revolt than accept a full reunion with Serbia. The two sides aren't ready to be peaceful neighbors, but taking small steps in that direction, while preserving the peace, would help them get used to the idea as their societies heal from communism and war. Impatient NATO members will just have to get used to sticking around.

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