The future of Kosovo still hangs in the balance

Predictably, the deadline for a deal on Kosovo's future passed without a settlement last week. The region's population may be 90% ethnic Albanian, but Serbia's opposition to independence remains deep-rooted.

It was "entirely predictable" that the deadline for a deal on Kosovo's future would pass on Monday without settlement, says Ivor Roberts in The Independent.

Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's independence is deep-rooted. Kosovo is the "cradle of Serb civilisation" and its loss to the Ottoman Turks over 600 years ago was felt "as keenly as the loss of Jerusalem by the Jews to the Roman imperial forces".

It reacquired the territory after the first Balkan War of 1912, but this brought its own problems; the new boundaries left more than half the Albanian people outside the borders of the new Albanian state, with a "deep sense of grievance".

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Today Kosovo's population is 90% ethnic Albanian. When Nato bombed Serbia in 1999 in response to Slobodan Milosevic's persecution of Kosovar Albanians, many Serbs fled. Since then, Kosovo has enjoyed de facto autonomy under the protection of 17,000 Nato troops, allowing it to reverse-cleanse' the province of all but around 200,000 Serbs. Yet Serbs remain "implacably opposed" to independence, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. "Like the Falklands for Argentina, Kosovo will always be a cause clbre".

Much depends on who would recognise an independent Kosovo, says General Sir Mike Jackson in The Sunday Telegraph. The US and the UK almost certainly would; but the EU would split and, crucially, Russia almost certainly would not. This is hardly surprising, says Jenkins. Moscow is "understandably averse" to Western troops coming to the aid of separatist movements and Greece, Spain and Cyprus are sympathetic owing to separatist problems of their own.

Kosovo is a mess, and there is no way to draw up a historical balance sheet to determine what outcome is most just, says Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. The Kosovar Albanians have suffered under Milosevic, but it is understandable that Serbia is reluctant to lose what amounts to 20% of its territory, containing some "exquisite Serbian Orthodox monasteries". But independence will be the "least worst outcome", not just for Kosovo but for Serbia itself, which has not exercised any real authority over Kosovo since the summer of 1999.

In their hearts the Serbs know that Kosovo is lost, but almost no one will admit it publicly. The real question is how it will be achieved: the best way, supervised independence, has been blocked by Putin's Russia. A hasty unilateral declaration of independence by the newly elected Prime Minister, former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci, could prompt a furious reaction from Serbian extremists and the authorities in Belgrade.

That leaves what senior negotiators are calling CDI, a coordinated declaration of independence, which will allow Kosovo to move towards its goal over the next three months in coordination with the EU and other international partners. In return for trading the "residual shell of formal sovereignty over Kosovo", Serbia should be offered a strong practical chance of a better future in the EU.

The one option the international community has ruled out is the one "likeliest to defuse the tension", says The Daily Telegraph. "And that is to leave the status of the disputed territory to those with the greatest stake it in it, viz those who live there." Why not settle the border by plebiscite, especially since the Serbians are already "clumped conveniently close to Serbia proper"?

Any frontier adjustment "carries risks, strands minorities, sets precedents, but we are choosing from a series of bad options The least bad option would surely be to take account, to the greatest extent possible, of what local people want".