Still recoiling from the victory of the ultranationalist Radical Party at the last week's parliamentary poll, Serbia is bracing for a new political crisis that could amplify nationalist sentiment. The U.N. is expected shortly to unveil proposals for the future of Serbia's independence-seeking southern province of Kosovo, seen by most Serbs as the cradle of their civilization. Populated mostly by ethnic Albanians, Kosovo was placed under U.N. protectorate status in 1999 after NATO military strikes forced Serbian forces to withdraw, although it remains formally part of Serbia. For most of last year, Serbian and Kosovar envoys negotiated in vain to find a compromise on Kosovo's status at internationally mediated talks in Vienna. On Feb. 2, former Finnish President and U.N. Special envoy Martti Ahtisaari will visit Serbia's and Kosovo's capitals to unveil a proposal that is widely expected to initiate a process that will result in formal independence for Kosovo in the course of few months.
Several diplomats who have seen the draft document tell TIME that the report will not explicitly recommend Kosovo's independence, but that outcome will be strongly suggested in the outline of Kosovo's future institutions. Ahtisaari will also propose that Kosovo be represented in key international organizations, such as the U.N., World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. However, Kosovo's institutions would not be fully sovereign: they will be supervised by an EU office with strong powers, while NATO would be expected to stay in the province for at least a few years. A similar solution has already been tested in Bosnia.
Ahtisaari will unveil his plan in Serbia and Kosovo before presenting it to the Contact Group — an informal grouping comprising United States, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan — behind closed doors in Vienna, where the document may undergo minor changes before being sent to the U.N. Security Council, where a resolution is expected by late March. Although they are to be formally consulted on the plan, neither Serbia nor Kosovo will be able to change it. At present, Russia is the only Contact group member who might oppose Kosovo's independence, but few believe that Moscow will go as far as vetoing the plan in the Security Council.
The timing of the process is unfortunate for Serbia's moderates, who are trying to form a coalition government from a parliament dominated by the nationalist far right. Some pro-Western leaders even appealed in vain to postpone Ahtisaari's visit. Bozidar Djelic, one of two moderate candidates for Prime Minister, warned that the Kosovo issue could destabilize Serbia. "It is crucial that no unilateral moves are made by the international community before a new democratic government is formed in Belgrade. Unilateral moves, not discussed with a new government, could strengthen the ultra-nationalist camp and lead to new elections where democrats would suffer and extremists prosper," Djelic told TIME. The Radicals have vowed to defend Kosovo "by all means necessary." The party's leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial in the Hague charged with committing war crimes.
Serbia's other perspective candidate for the top job, the acting Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, was much calmer about the impact of Ahtisaari's plan. "It is absolutely irrelevant when he will give his proposal, before or after the government is formed," Kostunica told journalists in the aftermath of the elections.
Whether or not it has seated a new government, Belgrade will almost certainly reject Ahtisaari's plan in full. Leaders across the political spectrum agree that Kosovo shouldn't be allowed to secede, and Serbia's new constitution adopted last November proclaimed the province an "essential part of Serbia's territorial integrity."
"We know they will say no, but we don't know how far they're willing to go", a Belgrade-based Western diplomat told TIME. "Will they recall the ambassadors to Western countries? Cut the commerce? So far they haven't given us a clue."Yet most analysts agree that threats of Serbia relapsing to the bad old days of nationalism and isolation are just a bluff, aimed at postponing the inevitable. Still, in the Balkans, worst-case scenarios have an unfortunate track record of coming true.