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Russia sees opportunity in Kosovo

BELGRADE -- Seven years after Kosovo was placed under United Nations control, it appears increasingly likely that the province will be allowed to formally break away from Serbia and become an independent nation. Members of the UN Security Council appear to be leaning toward permitting Kosovo to go its own way; the council is expected to vote on Kosovo's fate by the end of the year, unless the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, who have been negotiating unsuccessfully for months, reach a resolution.

But some of the world's most powerful countries are fearful that the move will encourage separatist movements elsewhere to ramp up their often bloody struggles and give hope to nascent independence groups that have not yet begun to fight. On the other hand, Russia, which had been adamantly opposed to Kosovo's independence, has now indicated that it might set a welcome precedent for pro-Russian separatist movements in the Caucasus.

The six nations working on a plan for Kosovo's future - Britain, France, Italy, the United States, Germany and Russia - have coordinated international policy in the province since it came under the control of the United Nations. Their representatives say they will try to craft a resolution to be voted on by the Security Council that will be so specific to the province that it will avoid setting legal precedent for other separatist groups.

The United Nations has controlled Kosovo, which is still officially a part of Serbia, since June 1999, when Yugoslav troops accused of committing widespread atrocities were forced to withdraw from the province after months of NATO-led bombing. Between 1998 and 1999, an estimated 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, were killed as the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army and the Serbian police cracked down on an ethnic Albanian insurgency.

Diplomats who represent the United States and Britain in the negotiations say they believe the only solution that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority will accept is independence, but they insist that the new state provide guarantees for its minority Serb population.

Other Western governments also want to find a speedy solution because they are growing weary of financing the peacekeeping troops and international officials who control the province. But Serbian leaders, wounded by Montenegro's recent break from Serbia and bitterly opposed to yet another split, say Kosovo independence could encourage the breakup of Bosnia and Herzegovina, another former Yugoslav republic.

Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Bosnia's Serb Republic - the area seized by Serb forces within Bosnia during the 1992-95 conflict there - said the region should "affirm the right to self determination" by holding a referendum.

The republic has remained part of Bosnia since the end of the conflict, but many Serbian politicians there have long hoped to unite with neighboring Serbia. Bosnian analysts say a referendum could split Bosnia in two, and provoke renewed violence. While Dodik later toned down his remarks, saying the suggestion was theoretical, ethnic Serbian politicians throughout the region say that if Kosovo becomes an independent state, pressure will inevitably increase for the Bosnian breakup. Some leaders in Serbia have suggested that Kosovo itself should be split, with the Serb-dominated north allowed to remain a part of Serbia, while the Albanian-dominated south forms its own government.

"If the Albanians want independence, maybe they should give something in return," Cedomir Antic, a member of G17 Plus, a political party that is part of the Serbia's coalition government, said in a recent interview.

Last week, the UN Mission in Kosovo announced the deployment of an additional 500 police officers in the north, amid threats by local leaders to create vigilante groups to provide security for Serbs. Ethnic Albanian leaders have said the threats signal a separatist intent.

The NATO-led peacekeeping force also said it would reopen a military base in the area.

The pro-Russian areas that might seek statehood are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions in Georgia that have been outside central government control since the early 1990s, and Transnistria, a Communist- run separatist region on the eastern edge of Moldova.

In January, President Vladimir Putin of Russia made clear he regarded Kosovo as a precedent for the Caucasus and said: "If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians?"

Abkhaz politicians have asserted recently that their claims for recognition are stronger than Kosovo's, since they are not under international protection and claim to have had a record of democratic government for almost 12 years.

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