Sunday, November 18, 2007

Trouble Ahead

A former rebel fighter has claimed victory in elections in Kosovo. Hashim Thaci's party seems likely to lead a grand coalition of Kosovar politicians, into a final showdown with Serbia over the future of the breakaway province. Next month, mediators are supposed to report on attempts to reach a compromise deal. With no sign of one, Mr Thaci says he'll declare independence anyway.

The long-running battle over Kosovo's future, with Serbia insisting it keeps control over the province, and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians demanding independence, has its roots much further back than the NATO war of 1999. In recent months, the Kosovo question's been fought on Cold War lines, with Serbia's traditional ally Russia threatening to use its veto at the UN to block independence.

But the talking can't go on forever, and with a worsening political crisis apparently just ahead, there's no doubt armed conflict is a possibility. If that wasn't bad enough, the prospect of the wider Balkans once again being engulfed in war is not totally unlikely. That's because, alnogside the Kosovo problem, Bosnia's currently in the midst of its worst political crisis since the 1995 peace deal brought years of bitter fighting to an overdue end.

The common factor in both crises is that Serbia feels its interests are under threat. Serbia's long-time goal in the area is to create a Greater Serbia - keeping hold of Kosovo and incorporating the Serb chunk of Bosnia into the country proper. It was this ambition that led to the war and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. If Serbia believes it's being backed into a corner, its militia fighters may yet take up arms once again. There are already reports of the secret mustering of men in Bosnian Serb territory, and in a land where many still keep rifles in their attics, that's a very serious prospect.

EU peacekeeping forces are currently still in Bosnia, but their mandate runs out this week. It's not really clear whether they'll legally be able to stay or not. Clearly, the departure of international troops would be very badly timed, and could embolden any militia groups who are considering taking up arms. As things come to a head, it's up to diplomats in Europe and elsewhere to make the Balkans their top priority, to avoid another senseless and bloody war.

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