The small patch of land known to Serbs as Kosovo i Metohija and to Albanians as Kosova has provided the backdrop for a clash of core principles of international relations ever since Nato chased out Serbian security forces in 1999 and turned the territory into a United Nations protectorate. After almost eight years of post-conflict convulsion, dispute and negotiation, the UN's special envoy Martti Ahtisaari submitted a "compromise" plan for Kosovo's future status to both Serbs and Albanians on 2 February 2007.
Ahtisaari's finessing of his proposal was uncontroversial: "The aim of the settlement is to lay the foundations for a future Kosovo that is viable and stable, a future Kosovo where members of all communities - Albanian, Serb, and other communities - can live a dignified, safe, and economically more sustainable life." But the content of his document most certainly is not.
Also by TK Vogel in openDemocracy:
"Daytons ambiguous legacy" (21 November 2005)
"Montenegro at a crossroads" (19 May 2006)
Your principle, my principle
The deep background of this historic proposal is the polarised views of Kosovo's identity and status held by the two populations. On one side is Belgrade, which argues that Kosovo has been an integral part of Serbia or Yugoslavia in its various incarnations since the first world war and that the principle of territorial integrity would be violated if Kosovo were to go. Philosophically and practically, Belgrade's arguments are concerned with sovereignty rather than the fate of Kosovo's Serb minority (around 10% of the province's population of some 2 million).
On the other side is Pristina, which argues that the well-expressed will of Kosovo's Albanians (around 90% of the population) to national self-determination makes an independent Kosovo the only credible outcome, and something many Kosovars have aspired to for decades.
Serbia gambled away any moral right to Kosovo, this line goes, when it brutally suppressed an Albanian uprising in the late 1990s, killing thousands of civilians and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. It was this counterinsurgency campaign that prompted Nato to intervene in what it described as a humanitarian intervention.
The UN then took charge of Kosovo, running some areas of public life and leaving others to a local administration it supervised. It had, however, to maintain the legal fiction that Kosovo was still part of Serbia: Security Council resolution 1244, which set up the UN mission, reaffirmed Serbia's legal sovereignty over Kosovo while simultaneously preventing Belgrade from exercising it.
That status quo has now become untenable. The main contributors to the Kosovo mission are unwilling to continue paying for an arrangement that cannot last, and Kosovo's Albanians are aching to be independent. Their ambition and impatience over the post-1999 years is evident both in formal, legal politics (the emergence of a credible governing coalition in Pristina) and illegitimate violence (orchestrated riots in March 2004, in which hundreds of Serb homes were torched and their inhabitants expelled, and twenty-two people killed).
On the ground
Beyond these arguments, however, there is what a recent article in Transitions Online called "a real land with real people going on about their everyday lives". It is here that any solution the policymakers and international lawyers come up with will have to work.
For the moment, public attention is firmly focused on the status question. After talks between the two sides predictably failed, chief negotiator Martti Ahtisaari was asked by the UN and the Contact Group - an informal grouping for Balkan policy that consist of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany - to outline his own plan for the future of Kosovo.
On 26 January 2007, Ahtisaari presented his findings to the Contact Group in Vienna; on 2 February, he arrived in Belgrade and Pristina to share his recommendations with the authorities there. The immediate reaction on each side is disappointment: the plan has both confirmed Belgrade's worst fears (prompting outgoing prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to refuse a meeting with Ahtisaari) while also displeasing Pristina by denying Kosovo full sovereignty and refraining from any reference to "independence".
Whatever de-facto independence there may follow, and may be formally recognised by many members of the UN including the western powers, will be circumscribed by extensive mechanisms for the protection of minority rights. That such assurances are critical was underlined by threats of otherwise moderate Kosovo Serb leaders that the northern part of Kosovo, where the Serbs are concentrated, could seek "independence from independence", that is, break away from an independent state.
A difficult transition
Behind the scenes, EU policymakers are busy thinking about the international presence in post-independence Kosovo. "The 'international community' - Martti Ahtisaari and his team in particular - have given considerable thought to the institutional design of the EU mission in Kosovo following independence", says Richard Caplan, an international relations scholar at Oxford University and the author of a seminal book on postwar administration. "The problem, in part, is that it is difficult to plan without knowing exactly what the Contact Group and Security Council envisage for Kosovo."
Also in openDemocracy on Kosovos conflicts and future status:
Scarlett MccGwire, "In Kosovo, statehood is the solvent for war" (7 June 2001)
John Dyer, "No going home to Kosovo" (12 October 2005)
James Walston, "Kosovo: the end of the beginning" (24 October 2005)
Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)
Peter Lippman, "Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos? " (30 October 2006)
Transitioning from the current UN mission to a European Union follow-on mission, likely to be the largest endeavour the EU has ever taken on outside its territory, might indeed be tricky. The handover will take a few months, possibly up to half a year, further delaying Kosovo's quasi-independence - and it could still be derailed if Russia refuses to vote for a Security Council resolution endorsing the new mission. And as so often in the Balkans, the EU has no Plan B.
The insecurity is mitigated to some extent by the fact that the EU mission in Kosovo will not need to reinvent the wheel. The history of peace implementation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, overseen by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), provides some guidelines as to what may work and what will not. "Thinking about the institutional design has certainly been influenced by the experience of the OHR in Bosnia", Caplan wrote. "There is a sense that the 'Bonn Powers'" - a reference to the OHR's powers to sack elected officials and impose laws - "have inhibited the development of indigenous capacity and, moreover, that they would not be appropriate for Kosovo given the degree of autonomy that the local institutions already enjoy."
One implication is that Kosovo's domestic authorities will now have to rise to the task. As Torbjorn Sohlstrom, head of the preparation team for the International Civilian Office (ICO), has said: "Governance, the responsibility to govern Kosovo, will pass from the international community to the institutions of Kosovo. There will be certain competencies, certain possible powers for the international community to intervene if things go wrong in selected areas."
For years, Kosovo's local institutions could point to the territory's unresolved status as the source of all problems. That option will no longer be available after independence-day. What Dimitar Bechev, a Balkan scholar at St Antony's College, Oxford refers to as "the inflated expectations in Kosovo that sovereignty is the silver bullet" will then come crashing down.
Indeed, Kosovars may find independence (quasi-, provisional, or effective as it may turn out to be) to be an anti-climactic experience. Very few of their everyday problems, above all a depressed economy dependent on remittances and the presence of foreigners, are likely to go away just because the province's legal status has changed.
But if Martti Ahtisaari's report overcomes the considerable diplomatic obstacles ahead and secures the acceptance of the international community, they can look forward to at least one day of celebration. After that, and in the face of the ambivalence or indifference of much of the rest of the world, and the enduring opposition of the Serbs, it will be reality-time.