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"This is not the beginning of a new war"

Thousands of Albanians demonstrated on Monday to demand independence for Kosovo

(Keystone)

A conflict analyst tells swissinfo what a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo would mean for peace in the Balkans.

Kurt Spillmann, former director of the Centre for Security Studies at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, thinks Serbia and Russia "will protest and express their anger and frustration" but he doesn't expect an outbreak of violence.

On Monday the newly elected government of Kosovo said it would start immediate talks with its Western backers on a declaration of independence from Serbia.

Leaders of Kosovo's two million ethnic Albanians made the announcement as Monday's deadline for a negotiated deal on the fate of the breakaway province passed without result.

In a report submitted to the United Nations on Friday, mediators from the United States, European Union and Russia said four months of talks had found no compromise between Serbia's offer of autonomy and the Albanian majority's demand for independence.

swissinfo: What is your reaction to the failure of negotiations?

Kurt Spillmann: I'm not surprised at all. The stalemate was foreseeable because both Kosovo and Serbia persisted in their attitudes. The next step is the more interesting one: we are now going to see the unilateral declaration of independence by the newly elected Kosovo government.

The only question is the timeframe – will it be in the next week as many foresee or will [newly elected president Hashim] Thaçi wait until the beginning of next year? I personally think he will do it very soon. He doesn't want to hesitate and he has made many promises to his electorate.

swissinfo: Every EU state apart from Cyprus supports Kosovan independence and on the UN Security Council only Russia would veto it. Is it possible to change these two countries' minds?

K.S.: If there is a change in the attitude of Russia in particular it would be a tremendous success for behind-the-scenes diplomacy, but I really don't expect this. President Putin is using his leverage on this issue to mark his importance and to sell himself as a true friend of the Serbs, who belong to the same Orthodox Christianity as a great part of his Russian electorate.

swissinfo: Cyprus claims Kosovan independence would set a bad precedent by encouraging separatist movements elsewhere. How would a unilateral decision affect stability in the region?

K.S.: Many people have said it would be the beginning of new violence, but I'm not sure. There is a certain amount of pressure from the EU and the US, who have already demonstrated once that they have military force behind their intentions.

swissinfo: On Monday Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey, who is explicitly pro-independence, dodged a question on whether Switzerland would recognise an independent Kosovo, saying the government would comment on that later. Is she having second thoughts?

K.S.: I don't think so, but I think she has learnt that the Swiss government has to speak with one voice if possible, and that it has to make a decision behind which all seven members [of the Swiss cabinet] – or at least the majority – can stand.

swissinfo: How important is it for Switzerland that Kosovo gains independence?

K.S.: There is a substantial number [200,000] of Kosovars living in Switzerland, who generally live on good terms with the Swiss. I think it would be the right signal for the Swiss government to say 'we are in favour of a democratic decision and the expressed will of 90 per cent of the population of Kosovo even though many people and even part of our government are not sure that this is an economically viable solution for Kosovo'.

swissinfo: The economic aspect is often lost in the debate...

K.S.: In my opinion too little attention is paid to this issue. Because Kosovo is not connected to the sea and has a very weak infrastructure and industrial base, the economic problems of this new state will be enormous. They will be dependent on foreign aid for a very long time.

swissinfo: Five years is a long time in Balkan politics – care to make any predictions?

K.S.: The interesting thing will be the relationship between Kosovo and Albania. Are they going to form a federation for economic reasons? It's too early to say, but if there is no friendly resolution with Serbia, the Kosovars might turn to Albania...

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

Switzerland is home to 200,000 of the Kosovar diaspora.
This is the second largest immigrant community after Italians.
300,000 people in Switzerland come from the former Yugoslavia.
Switzerland has some 200 troops stationed in Kosovo.

end of infobox

In brief

Kosovo has been in limbo since Nato expelled Serb forces in 1999 to stop the killing of civilians in a counter-insurgency war. Around 10,000 people died, the vast majority Albanians.

The 90 per cent Albanian majority reject return to Serb rule. They have promised to coordinate a declaration of independence with the US and the EU, which is due to take over supervision of the territory from the United Nations.

Following a unilateral Kosovan move to independence, Nato's 16,000-strong Kosovo peace force is braced for a violent backlash by the Serb north and a possible bid to break away. Around 120,000 Serbs remain, most in isolated enclaves.

Serbia, backed by Russia, opposes independence for land it sees as the historical cradle of the nation. Warnings of chaos in the Balkans appeared to have failed to divide the 27-member EU, which on Monday expressed almost "full unity" on the issue.

Washington and all EU states apart from Cyprus see Kosovo's independence as the best way to stability in the Balkans after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The EU is preparing to send 1,600 policemen and an overseer to replace the U.N. mission.

In 2005 Switzerland became the first state worldwide to call for formal independence for Kosovo. The Swiss position is pro-consensus, arguing that evolution towards formal independence must happen under close international monitoring as well as through negotiations with the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

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