Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians finally are meeting to discuss the fate of what U.N. special representative Soren Jessen-Peterson describes as the "last piece of the puzzle in the Balkans."
Although a final decision on whether Kosovo, a province of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia, should become an independent country lies with the U.N. Security Council, the duration of the process and its outcome will largely depend on the behavior of the two disputing parties, which are meeting in Vienna, Austria.
For the provisional government in Kosovo, this means demonstrating that it is truly committed to use the language of the U.N. standards that would qualify Kosovo for independence "to building a multi-ethnic, tolerant, democratic and stable society."
Progress made by the provisional government has been undramatic but steady. In 2004, Kosovo held parliamentary elections that were judged free and fair by international observers, and it established a coalition government that is cooperating fully with its U.N. partners.
Economically, Kosovo has created an entrepreneurial environment that is fully transparent, implemented a customs code, made great strides creating tax laws and privatized dozens of socially owned enterprises, most notably the $45 million sale in November of the Ferronikeli nickel works in Glogovac.
Finally, a European Union report on Kosovo in late 2005 praised the provisional government for "progress" in addressing the social and political discontent that fueled anti-Serb rioting that erupted in March 2004.
The minority Serbs, too, have responsibilities to fulfill if the United Nations is to decide favorably in the status talks. Two key U.N. standards are requirements that largely must be satisfied by Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. This means that the Serbs must encourage refugees and displaced persons to return to their homeland.
At the United Nations, Serbian President Boris Tadic has proposed a 20-year "grace period" before deciding Kosovo's final status. This suggestion was promptly dismissed by Kosovo's provisional prime minister and Europeans associated with the talks.
Both Tadic and Russia's U.N. ambassador, Andrei Denisov, warned that Kosovo's independence could have an effect on the resolution of other conflicts.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin publicly cautioned the Russian representative on the six-nation U.N. Kosovo Contact Group that if Kosovo were granted independence, it would cause "a surge of unrest" in the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
But this argument illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of recent events in the former Yugoslavia: An independent Kosovo would not set a political precedent but would follow the precedent created in the early 1990s when neighboring Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia all former Yugoslav republics gained independence.
"We run the real risk of an explosion of Kosovo, an implosion of Serbia and new fractures in the foundations of Bosnia and Macedonia," said the November 2005 status report by the European Union's International Commission on the Balkans. "The commission acknowledges that there are no quick and easy solutions for the Balkans and that ultimately it is up to the people of the region to win their own future. The starting point of the International Commission on the Balkans is that the status quo has outlived its usefulness."The status talks for Kosovo have been delayed since 2002. The people of Kosovo have the legal right to self-determination, and the United Nations should affirm this right according to the principles that have been agreed to by the U.N. Contact Group and participating parties.
Tim Kennedy is a founding partner of the Strategic Policy Group, a political risk-analysis business in Washington. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service