THE clamoring of Kosovo's Albanians for independence from Serbia approached a climax when the pro-freedom party achieved victory in the Nov. 17 elections.
The problem is that the government of Serbia, speaking for several hundred thousand ethnic Serbs remaining in Kosovo, has taken a firm position on independence: Never.
That might not matter so much - Serbian forces were driven out of Kosovo by NATO in 1999 - except that Russia, a veto-bearing member of the United Nations Security Council, supports Serbia's view.
Predominantly Orthodox Christian Russia has had religious and historical sympathy for predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbia, both of whose languages use the cyrillic script. In 1914, that closeness was one element that drew Russia into the conflict on the side of Serbia against Austria-Hungary and Germany, kicking off World War I.
In principle, an independent Kosovo, with the majority Muslim Albanians and the minority Christian Serbs living together in one country, should not be impossible. But the Albanians, either in word or in deed, have never been willing or able to provide the Serbs sufficient assurance of their security and respect for their rights to meet their concerns or the concerns of their protector, Serbia, and its protector, Russia. The Kosovo Serbian side has also consistently taken the thoroughly obdurate position that Kosovo is part of Serbia and will remain so.
Although there are differences among them, the United States, the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations also want to see an end to the affair, which has now lasted an expensive eight years. Negotiators have been working to try to meet a Dec. 10 deadline for a decision on Kosovo's future. No one believed that the outcome of the elections would be other than a sweeping Albanian party victory, although the 34 percent turnout was disappointingly low.
Absent an agreement, the Albanian-led Kosovo government may declare unilateral independence after Dec. 10. It isn't clear what Serbia would do then. Division of Kosovo into Albanian and Serbian sectors is a possibility. It is also possible that the Serbia-Russia side will respond by supporting a unilateral declaration of independence by the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus breaking the hard-gained 1995 Dayton Accords.
Better relations between Russia and the United States might have headed off this impending crisis in the Balkans. Instead, the Bush Administration has preferred to spend its meager capital with the Russians on its European missile defense program, to their fury. The Kosovo problem is heating up, however, and this could have consequences for Europe.