EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - We are not often given the privilege of seeing into the future. Certainly, if we expect something to turn nasty, we rarely know when that nastiness will begin. Yet we have on the European continent at the present time just such a time bomb with the days and minutes until it goes off quietly ticking away. I wonder that they don't erect a large digital display on the Berlaymont in Brussels; it might help to concentrate minds.
I refer, of course, to Kosovo and the deadline of Monday 10 December by which date a determination of that province's final status has to be determined. At the time of writing, we are a mere 18 days away.
Legally the province is a part of Serbia but has been under United Nations administration since NATO led troops drove out the Yugoslav army almost a decade ago. The population is overwhelmingly Albanian and in last Sunday's general election, boycotted by the few remaining Kosovo Serbs, the largest number of seats were taken by a party pledged to declare independence unilaterally after 10 December, if an agreed solution has not been found beforehand.
Such a unilateral declaration has always been seen as potentially damaging to orderly relations and poses a special problem for the European Union whose members would be split over whether to recognise the new entity in the absence of a UN resolution.
It would also split the USA and Russia whose sympathies lie respectively with the Kosovans and the Serbs; Russia wielding a UN veto over any independence proposal, not approved by its Serbian ally.
So much is known and indeed has been discussed many times as talks over UN envoy Marti Ahtisaari's plans for the province to have supervised independence have ground on.
Now a spectacle far more hideous than a mere diplomatic split threatens to raise its ugly head. It is no exaggeration to say that the spectre of war is again hanging over the Balkans.
The fear is that a unilateral declaration of independence could prompt a new invasion of Kosovo by Serbia with the immediate objective of securing those Serb communities in Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok,and Leposavic on the Kosovo side of the border and leading to a de facto partitioning of the province.
This would be resisted of course, both by the UN's NATO led peacekeeping forces - KFOR - and certainly by the Kosovans. In recent days the UN administration has dispatched KFOR forces to the Kosovo-Serb border, effectually closing it off to possible incursions.
Inexorably we could be dragged into conflict again. And not just in Kosovo. For even a minor skirmish would threaten to destabilise the fragile status quo among the Serb communities in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, at least some of whom are still attached to the idea of a greater Serbia and not entirely comfortable in their Bosnian republic.
It would not take much for them to come to the aid of the Kosovo Serbs and perhaps to try a little border alteration of their own between Bosnia and Serbia. Even Macedonia is still not completely stable with recent clashes between police and armed Albanians. By Christmas a swathe of the Balkans could be alight.
That we can even be contemplating such a scenario in the heart of the European continent in the first decade of the twenty-first century and among nations whose future membership of the great European partnership is all but assured, is remarkable to say the least. That we can be contemplating such a scenario without the most strenuous efforts being made to avert the crisis in the capitals of the Union is almost unbelievable.
Far from being at the heart of the European continent, enveloped by the Union itself on three sides and by the sea on the fourth, the Balkans is too often treated as some distant and far away region of which we know little and care less. A problem for the UN, perhaps, or NATO, and one to which we contribute certainly, but not as a major EU problem for which we take the prime responsibility in finding a solution.
Well, that needs to change quickly if we are not to have another red stain on our proud European map.
Of course solutions are being advanced - various kinds of independence along the ‘now you see it now you don't' lines are proposed for Kosovo. The latest is to suggest that the province takes on a similar status to the Baltic Aland Islands, which belong to Finland but are, for all practical purposes, independent, neutral, and demilitarised. Their people speak Swedish to which country they are geographically and socially proximate.
Such solutions might have worked had not the Kosovans been encouraged first by the Ahtisaari plan and then by the United States and certain EU members who let it be known that independence was their preferred solution. Their strong indications to the effect that they would recognise an independent Kosovo, regardless of any UN resolution, have of course led the Kosovans to believe they have nothing to lose by taking a hard line.
Moreover, with a new electoral mandate (albeit on a low turnout of 43 per cent) behind him, Mr Hashim Thaci, the former Kosovo guerilla leader, is unlikely to back down now. Meanwhile the clock ticks away the minutes to potential disaster.
It is difficult to see what can be done, but a start might be for the EU and the USA to declare - as Russia does - that they would not recognise an illegal independence, unilaterally declared by the Kosovans, without a UN resolution. That at least would be a signal that the international community had re-adopted the principle of international law as a means of settling inter-state disputes.
This would send a clear signal to the Kosovans that although they might declare independence, no advantage, indeed considerable disadvantage, would result from such a declaration.
If the Kosovans could be made to understand this, just possibly they could be persuaded to join a Baltic cruise to the Aland Islands and to study ways in which they could enjoy the benefits of self-government without having their own seat at the UN. And just possibly we could continue to be able to say that the last conflict on mainland Europe took place in the 20th century.
The author is editor of EuropaWorld