BBC: Balkan jigsaw seeks final piece
The blueprint for Kosovo's future that Martti Ahtisaari, the United Nations special envoy, has presented to leaders of Serbia and Kosovo confirms earlier reports that, if approved by the UN, it would set Kosovo firmly on the path to eventual independence. Supporters of the deal argue that resolving Kosovo's long-term status will settle the last remaining problem left over from the violent break-up of the old Yugoslav federation of six republics during the 1990s.
The Western countries in the six-nation Contact Group that has been spearheading the UN's diplomatic process on Kosovo believe it will boost stability across the Balkans and help the countries of the region integrate more closely with the European Union and Nato as they prepare for membership of these two organisations. They believe it will appease Kosovo's independence- seeking Albanian majority, who have been growing restless after living nearly eight years under a UN protectorate.
KEY PROPOSAL POINTS
Contains no reference to Serbian sovereignty or independence for Kosovo
Blocks Kosovo from joining Albania, or having its Serb areas split off and join Serbia
Kosovo can use national symbols
Kosovo can join international organisations
Creates international envoy mandated by UN and EU with power to intervene in government
Retains Nato and EU forces in military and policing roles
Protects non-Albanian minority with guaranteed roles in government, police and civil service
Protects Serbian Orthodox Church sites and Serbian language
Whatever the possible long-term benefits, the Ahtisaari plan is likely to cause some headaches, at least in the short term, among the countries of the region.
Serbia's leaders have made it clear they will not accept what amounts to independence for Kosovo - even if the word "independence" does not feature in Mr Ahtisaari's recommendations.
While Serbia's political parties are engaged in intense discussions on forming a new coalition government following last month's inconclusive elections, outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia has indicated that any new government should sever diplomatic relations with countries that recognise Kosovo.
If applied against the United States and major European countries, such a move would be counter-productive for Serbia. It would isolate Belgrade in a way similar to what happened when it broke off diplomatic relations with leading Nato countries during the conflict between Slobodan Milosevic's Serb-Montenegrin federation of Yugoslavia and Nato, in the course of the war over Kosovo in 1999.
However, for several of Serbia's neighbours the threat of possible diplomatic repercussions is a cause for concern. Some countries are worried that a diplomatic rift with Serbia could make life more difficult for their nationals who are part of the rich patchwork of ethnic communities, first and foremost, in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina. The 300,000 ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina form the largest of these communities. Besides, Serbia is also home - among others - to Croatian, Slovak, Romanian and Bulgarian minorities.
Violated agreement Yet the concerns of these countries - most of them new EU members - are dwarfed by the potential problems facing the much poorer and weaker states of the region.
Kosovo's independence is likely to revive the arguments over separatism in two former Yugoslav republics, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Serb Republic, one of Bosnia's two autonomous entities, has in recent months been suggesting that the people of his entity should have a referendum about their future - even though breaking away from Bosnia would mean violating the Dayton peace accords which brought peace to the war-ravaged country in 1995.
Mr Ahtisaari's plan contains no provisions for a referendum in Kosovo, not least to ensure that the Kosovo settlement does not become a model for others to follow. Indeed, supporters of Mr Ahtisaari's blueprint, including the Western powers, are at pains to point out that the Kosovo case is unique, not just in the Balkans, but right across the area of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where there are still so-called "frozen conflicts" involving national and ethnic groups demanding independence.
Kosovo's unique legal status is due to the fact that it has been under UN administration since the end of the war in 1999. Moreover, any change in Kosovo's status - whether along the lines of Mr Ahtisaari's recommendations or not - is subject to endorsement by a resolution in the UN Security Council. In spite of the insistence that Kosovo should not serve as a model for others, there are worries not only in Bosnia but also in Macedonia.
Many Macedonians fear that if Kosovo's Serbs, who want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia, declare their own secession from an independent Kosovo, that might revive separatist sentiments among Macedonia's large ethnic-Albanian population.
However, Mr Ahtisaari's blueprint rules out any partitioning of Kosovo, echoing the guidelines issued to him by the Contact Group. It also bans Kosovo's merger with any other state - which means that the idea of union with Albania (and the creation a greater Albanian state) is not on the cards.
That is not a problem for Albania, which has more than enough economic difficulties of its own to want to acquire further problems by linking up with Kosovo. The prospect of Kosovo's independence is a triumph for Albania - the only country that recognised Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in the early 1990s when Kosovo was still firmly under Serb rule.
By contrast, for other countries in the region, the Kosovo settlement process may yet contain many problems and pitfalls.