If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, then the way to political irrelevance may well be paved with pointless negotiations that everyone knows will fail.
That, at least, seems to be the lesson of the ongoing "final status" negotiations on the future of Kosovo. On the one hand, the international troika, made up of mediators from the United States, Russia and the European Union, remain outwardly committed to helping Kosovo and Serbia find a solution to their ongoing stalemate. On the other hand, with the talks set to end on December 10, nobody really believes that success is possible anymore. And posturing for what comes next has already begun.
"There is an overall atmosphere of resignation that troika-like negotiation processes are no longer going to work," Alex Anderson, Kosovo project director for the International Crisis Group, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "These talks have largely been a process to enable the European Union to adapt to the coming Kosovo situation."
Few have any illusions about what that situation might look like. Kosovo has remained nominally part of Serbia since the war ended in 1999, but the small, ethnic-Albanian province has long made it clear it will be happy with nothing short of independence. Both the EU and the US have been supportive of that ultimate goal. Serbia, though, refuses to give up control of Kosovo and has consistently been backed by Russia. Kosovo's potential United Nations path to independence -- as outlined by special envoy Martti Ahtisaari this spring -- has been blocked by Russia's Security Council veto.
Absolutely No Alternatives
Now, with former rebel leader Hasham Thaci winning elections in Kosovo last Saturday, it is no longer a question of whether Kosovo will declare unilateral independence. It has become a question of when.
"Our vision and our stance are very clear," said Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu following the most recent meeting of the troika on Tuesday. "It's the independence of Kosovo and its recognition. There are absolutely no alternatives."
So what happens next? Europe, at the moment, is frantically looking for an answer to that question. The West has urged Thaci not to declare independence immediately following the end of talks on Dec. 10 -- and he appears to be willing to listen. Anderson, from the International Crisis Group, thinks that Thaci will only act in concert with Washington and Brussels.
But Europe itself is divided on the issue. While Brussels has supported an independent Kosovo and is even helping the province build up state-like institutions, many EU members that have their own minorities, like Cyprus and Romania, are reluctant to recognize a separatist state.
Still, they may not have much time to figure it out. Once the talks fail, "the Albanians in Kosovo will declare independence within a month," Richard Holbrooke, the former US envoy who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war in Bosnia, told German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday. "It is clear that Russia won't recognize them. There is great danger that violence will result."
Best Chance for Independence
Kosovo's demands for independence are nothing new; the ethnic Albanians have dreamed of their own country for decades. But the movement for independence gained steam following the ethnic cleansing policies pursued in the region by then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. The United Nations has administered the province since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign brought the Serb offensive to an end.
With the United Nations negotiation process now ending, the Kosovo-Albanians see the current climate as their best chance to make the grab for independence, despite European jitters. "Kosovars are, on the one hand, nervous about acting on their own," Anderson says. "On the other hand they are worried that if they dont put down a marker of their own, then the EU and the international community will start a new process."
The issue, meanwhile, has become greater than just Kosovo. Even if the region doesn't descend into violence -- and Anderson is quick to say that he believes peace will prevail -- the political consequences of a declaration of independence could be far reaching, says Dusan Reljic of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.
"Any kind of unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo violates international law," Reljic told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And the UN and international law are going to be damaged by a unilateral declaration that is not opposed by the UN."
A Policy of 'Eyes Wide Shut'
Plus, the Kosovo issue has already become yet another irritant in relations between the West and Russia, and it threatens to erupt into all-out diplomatic conflict. On Wednesday the Russian member of the troika spoke out against US policy in the region. "The Americans believe that Kosovos de facto separation has already taken place," Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko told Russia's Izvestia newspaper. "We look at the situation from the point of view of international law, not pseudo-reality."
His comments come just days after Holbrooke lobbed a verbal grenade in the other direction. "The Russians have decided to act very unpleasantly," Holbrooke told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Vladimir Putin's government wants to bury the Dayton Accords, for one reason: Russia wants to use every means to be a world power again."
Reljic, for his part, thinks the Russians are right to be upset. "If you look at Russia's position, even since 1999, not for a single moment did the Russians indicate they would play along with this. It was a policy of 'eyes wide shut' not to look at what Russia was saying all the time."
But no matter who is right, the result might be a bad one for Europe. Serbia is rapidly losing faith that the European Union will invite it to join any time soon. Its close alliance with Russia could develop into a weakness for EU security policy in the region. That, at least, is the future Reljic sees for the region.
"History does not stop the day the US recognizes the independence of Kosovo. A new phase, even more complicated phase might start," Reljic says. "We are not seeing any kind of endgame in the Balkans it could throw back the region for many years."