On deadline

November 15, 2006

As if the world needed another crisis, Kosovo is moving onto the front burner. For seven years, it has been an ill-defined - and relatively ill-run - international protectorate, but now time has run out. The Kosovar Albanians were promised that the United Nations would devise a final status for their territory by the end of this year, and the implication was that it would include a formal severing of ties with Serbia. The U.N. has put off that determination until the end of January, in an effort not to inflame Serbian parliamentary elections. So the Kosovars are angry because of the delay, and the U.N. plan, when it comes, is likely to leave both Kosovars and Serbs resentful and perhaps even feeling humiliated.

Two weeks ago, Serbs voted overwhelmingly - by 96 percent - to approve a new constitution that declares Kosovo will forever be a part of Serbia. Some in Kosovo want to match that with a declaration of independence, before the U.N. takes any action. All this spells trouble.

The chief difficulty is the Serbian minority population within Kosovo. Many are in a northern enclave that borders on Serbia, and their communities have integrated fairly thoroughly with Serbian government structures. The most likely U.N. plan would tacitly accept their status, while giving the Kosovar Albanians a form of self-rule. The problem is that the majority of Serbs in Kosovo live outside this enclave, and the reason Kosovo won't be granted outright independence is so that the European Union authorities can step in to try to curb abuses against Serbs as they are happening (which they surely will). The EU would also be counted on to squelch provocative acts directed at Serbia itself.

In other words: Kosovo is effectively broken off from Serbia, and the Serbs living there would have to rely on what they would consider the uncertain protection of the European Union. This would stoke the most poisonous forms of Serbian nationalism (which is saying something).

At the same time, the Kosovar Albanians are asked to accept the loss of the north, and to live with EU interference in all but the most mundane administrative tasks.

Can all this be finessed? The temptation, with so much else going wrong in the world, would be not to pay close attention. But that risks a truly serious consequence - another big Balkan breakdown.

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