By SLOBODAN LEKIC
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM — The United States and Russia are butting heads over the breakaway region of Kosovo, which is awaiting a final U.N. recommendation on whether it will become an independent nation or remain part of Serbia.
Washington supports conditional independence for Kosovo and wants to set a timetable. But Moscow, Serbia's traditional ally, is against establishing a schedule and says no solution can be imposed against Serbia's wishes.
"We've long taken the position that now being seven years since war ended in Kosovo in 1999, it's time to give people of Kosovo a certain sense of their future," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said on the sidelines of a recent conference of the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The situation is complicated by hints from the Kremlin that Russia would view granting Kosovo independence as a precedent for Moscow-backed separatist movements in former Soviet republics. Washington rejects that position.
Adds to list of disputes
The impasse is the latest of several disputes straining relations between the United States and Russia, which is reasserting itself on the international stage.
Other high-profile disagreements include Iran's nuclear program and Russia's support for breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova.
Moscow has cultivated strong ties with two rebel Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and with Moldova's separatist province of Trans-Dniester.
It has stopped short of recognizing them but has suggested their independence drives also should be honored. The Bush administration has repeatedly demanded that Russia withdraw its forces from the enclaves, saying their presence infringes on Georgia's and Moldavia's sovereignty.
Washington also argues that Kosovo is a unique case and that any solution imposed by the United Nations there cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, when NATO drove Serbian forces out of the mainly Albanian-inhabited province to prevent a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
A U.N. envoy is due to make a final recommendation early next year on whether the province should gain independence or remain a self-governing part of Serbia.
Ethnic Albanians, who comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people, are demanding independence, but Serbia insists Kosovo remain a self-governing part of Serbia.
Washington expects the upcoming U.N. ruling to result in independence for Kosovo despite Serbia's objections. Burns insisted that because of Kosovo's status as a ward of the United Nations, it could not be compared by Moscow to other breakaway regions that are unrecognized by the international community.
"The United States expects that after (the Jan. 21 parliamentary elections in Serbia, former Finnish President Martti) Ahtisaari would put forward his plan for final status of Kosovo," he said. "We then anticipate that the U.N. Security Council would be asked to pass resolution concerning final status of Kosovo."
"We would want that to happen very quickly: Let's say a month or so following Serb elections in late January," Burns said.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately rejected that proposal. Moscow wields veto power in the Security Council, and Russia's ambassador in Belgrade indicated that it may use it to prevent Kosovo's independence.
"The solution could be only a negotiated solution, and I do not see how the Security Council could associate itself with any idea which would mean imposing decision to one of the parties," Lavrov said.