PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - The West says it’s out of the question. Serbia insists it isn’t interested. And ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo shudder at the thought.
But diplomatic deadlock over the province’s demand for independence is deepening; and the ‘taboo’ option of splitting the territory in two refuses to go away.
Former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov is the latest to float the idea, in comments given front-page billing in Serbian daily Politika, a newspaper politically close to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
“I am certain I won’t be popular when I say that Kosovo should be divided,” Primakov wrote.
“It is difficult at the moment to say where the border would run. But it is clear that the parts of Kosovo where the Serbs and the monasteries are located should belong to Serbia.”
Primakov was prime minister in 1999 when NATO ignored Russia, sidestepped the United Nations and bombed Serbia for 11 weeks to drive its forces from Kosovo and halt a brutal campaign to empty the territory of its ethnic Albanian majority.
Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was weak. But times have changed, and President Vladimir Putin is providing a climax to the Kosovo drama few predicted, but many feared.
Threatening to use its veto, Russia has blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution that would effectively set Kosovo on the path to statehood after eight years of U.N. administration.
Kosovo Albanians warn they will take matters into their own hands, and were counting on the support of the United States.
But the European Union — the impoverished territory’s chief financial backer and potentially its future home — says Kosovo can forget recognition if it declares independence unilaterally.
The West sees zero prospect of returning Kosovo to Serb rule. But there was no sign of rapprochement at Monday’s Maine talks between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush.
Diplomats are now searching for middle ground, where previously they said was none.
Partition “will come up one of these days, we know it,” said a senior Western diplomat.
Western capitals had discussed the possibility only “informally”, the diplomat told Reuters. “But no one wants to talk about it. You don’t make such a concession until the very last minute. And we’re not there yet.”
The northern slice of Kosovo above the Ibar River is home to some 40,000 Serbs, who dominate. Some 60,000 live in enclaves to the south, surrounded by two million Albanians.
Most enclaves are clustered to the eastern and southern edges, and around the capital, Pristina.
In principle, NATO allies with 16,000 troops in Kosovo reject partition. They fear it would revive Albanian insurgencies on Kosovo’s borders in Macedonia and Serbia’s Presevo Valley, where many see unfinished business from conflicts in 2000 and 2001.
But on the ground, Kosovo is already partitioned. The north is run by Belgrade, and shares no links with Pristina.
It has been out-of-bounds for Kosovo Albanian leaders since the end of the 1998-99 war, when French NATO troops drew the line at the Ibar running through Mitrovica to provide Serbs with a safe haven from Albanians bent on revenge.
Under a Western-backed blueprint drafted by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, Serbs in Kosovo would be given virtual autonomy, an entity in all but name.
“We know that we’ll have a de facto Cyprus-style partition anyway,” the Western diplomat told Reuters. It would be a small step to full division.
Despite Belgrade’s official denial, the influential International Crisis Group thinktank says division has been Serbia’s aim all along, knowing it has little hope or desire to integrate, let alone police, 2 million hostile Albanians.
With the help of Russia, Serbia is delaying the project and counting on Albanians to lose patience and declare independence.
According to the ICG, Serbia will use the ensuing legal chaos to nail its claim to at least the north.
“Fresh ideas are needed, instead of empty slogans,” says Sir Ivor Roberts, a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia.
“An agreement is necessary that would satisfy both sides equally - and that’s partition.”
But Kosovo Albanian Prime Minister Agim Ceku remains opposed. “Partition is out of the question,” he told Reuters on Tuesday. “If you start redrawing borders in the Balkans, the big question is where you will stop.”