The first round of negotiations over possible independence for Kosovo ended on Tuesday, as expected without significant progress. The early stage of talks has been viewed by U.N. moderators more as a forum for Serbs and Kosovar Albanians to air opinions and discuss options than to make any real headway. That said, the talks will be watched carefully by a number of groups. If the Kosovar Albanians, who sense independence close at hand and have international support, manage to secede from Serbia, parts of Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia also might strike out on their own. At issue is the fate of the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority in Kosovo. Though technically a province within the Federation of Serbia and Montenegro, Kosovo has been under U.N. control since 1999, when NATO operations
against Serbia ceased. Belgrade wants to maintain some political authority over the province, or at least ensure the safety of its Serb minority, while Albanians want complete independence for the province. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari
has been named lead negotiator in the talks. Ahtisaari is no stranger to Balkan politics. He helped to convince former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to sign the accord that formally ended the Kosovo war in 1999. Since that time, international powers, not Belgrade, have been in control of Kosovo, and now they are in charge of the talks as well. At this point, there seems to be little suspense associated with the outcome of negotiations. NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations all expect Kosovo to gain independence, and Serbia lacks both the influence and the numbers to assert its will. Even Ahtisaari was fairly blunt on the issue when talks opened on Feb. 20. In declaring that the Kosovars will decide their own fate, he said, "Some 90 percent of them are Albanians — what do you think their decision will be?" Serbia is not entirely without options: It could, of course, attempt to keep Kosovo by force, but the repercussions would be more than the Serbs could bear. Serbia wants to join the European Union; any aggressive moves toward Kosovo would severely damage its already troubled accession bid. In 1998 and 1999, of course, violence led to NATO military action, and Serbia has little interest in being bombed again. Assuming, then, that there will be no violence, the talks are expected to resume March 17 — when they will be closely observed by Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia, which all harbor significant independence movements within their current boundaries.
Of the three, Montenegro likely would be the first to follow Kosovo down the independence path. Rather than attempt to reach a deal for full independence straightaway with the EU and Belgrade, Montenegro has taken a staged approach — opting first for autonomy and existence in a federation with Serbia. However, some Montenegrins still harbor dreams of something larger
, and will vote April 30 on an independence referendum. The referendum requires approval by 55 percent of voters; thus far, only about 45 percent are believed to be in favor of the measure but Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic hopes that number will rise if Kosovo's bid for independence gains traction. Even if the referendum fails, however, politicians on both sides of the issue expect there could be a fight. Macedonia, which is home to a sizeable Albanian minority, also will be watching developments over Kosovo. It must be remembered that this minority, which constitutes about 25 percent of the population, led a violent six-month campaign against ethnic Macedonians in the western part of the country in 2001. The struggle prompted the United States and the European Union to intervene, and the Albanians eventually accepted a role in the country's political system. However, if Kosovo achieves independence and emotions run high among Albanians, there is a potential for further unrest in Macedonia — and thus a possible threat to the country's delicate stability and elections slated for June. Moreover, Macedonia — like Serbia — has designs on joining the EU: It was granted candidate status earlier this month, so maintaining that balance is vital to the interests of Skopje. And then there is Bosnia — where it is the ethnic Serb, rather than Albanian, population that might attempt to secede. Under the 1995 Dayton accords, Bosnia was divided into two entities: Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is governed by a Muslim-Croat federation, and Republika Srpska, which is controlled by Bosnian Serbs. If Kosovo and Montenegro both were to separate from Serbia, Republika Srpska likely would try to reincorporate itself there — and given the geography involved, that likely would not proceed without violence. The international community, then, eventually could have a tough decision to face over Bosnia: They do not want Belgrade to wield influence over the republic, but nor do they want another Balkan war. The region is now balanced on a delicate edge, and the issue of Kosovo — whose status could be decided by the end of this year — well might tip that balance back into chaos.