Just as the first two-day meeting of the status talks between Kosovar Albanians and Serbia concluded, EES hosted a meeting to bring together the various perspectives of the parties concerned. In his keynote address, Ambassador Ivan Vujacic presented the Serbian position on the Kosovo talks, which has been given scarce mention in national and international press. Serbia, Ambassador Vujacic asserted, admits and regrets that repression has occurred against Albanians in Kosovo, but added that with Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY and the fact that Serbia is now an active member in the OSCE, Council of Europe and aspires for membership in the EU, ethnic Albanians do not have much to fear from Serbia today. He also cited that international law—in the form of UN Resolution 1244—ensures the territorial integrity of the former republics of Yugoslavia. As a constituent republic of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia's territorial integrity must be guaranteed and Kosovo, which never had the status of a republic, should remain within Serbia.

Throughout the world, whether it is in the interest of regional stability or historical continuity, there are countless nations that do not have the opportunity to exercise the right to self-determination. Vujacic warned that Kosovo's independence would create a dangerous precedent in international law, since it would in effect condone ethnic and border adjustments according to ethnic composition. Countries in which sizable ethnic minorities have also used violence in their struggle for independence, such as Russia and Spain, would no doubt have difficulty accepting this outcome. To balance the right to self-determination with other interests, Serbia is prepared to give Kosovo decentralized self-rule, and hopes to work toward this goal during the negotiations on status.

The so-called "Standards before Status" policy adopted by the international community to help resolve the problem of Kosovo's status cannot be abandoned, Vujacic said. The fact that status talks have started when standards for good governance, economic stabilization and minority rights protection have not been met raises grave concerns in Serbia. Vujacic stressed the importance of these established standards, since they were formulated to in essence test the engagement of local political leaders as well as their commitment to international standards. After six years, there is little evidence that minority rights and property rights are respected or ensured by local administrators. This has not created a conducive environment for refugee returns, which Serbia sees as deeply troubling. If it had not been for the international troops protecting the few enclaves that remain, Vujacic asserted, there would be no Serbs left in Kosovo.

The key issue for Albanians in the status talks is to create an independent Kosovo. But while there are many voices within the international community who support this call for self-determination, an independent Kosovo must allow for the survival of Serbs in the region. Kosovo as a mono-ethnic state born out of violence against the Serbian minority would not further the goals of the international community, which is built upon fostering regional stability and cooperation. Therefore, the key issue for the Serbs in the status talks is that it creates a credible process for the implementation of the standards, as agreed upon by the United Nations and the Contact Group. Taking as a given that an independent Kosovo will be able and willing to implement the standards would be foolish. Instead, the Kosovar leadership—whether self-ruled or independent—must show proof that Kosovo has and will continue to move in that direction.

Rosemary DiCarlo began her address by stating that 2006 is an important year for the Balkans and the United States is eager to finish the job it began in the 1990s. There are many beginnings, ends and deadlines scheduled in 2006 for the Balkans, including the start of the negotiations on Kosovo's status; the agreement on a new constitution for Bosnia-Herzegovina; a referendum on the independence of Montenegro; the end of Bosnia's current High Representative's tenure; and the capture of war crimes suspects. Of these many issues, DiCarlo said that Kosovo's status is in many ways the most difficult problem facing the region and the United States's relationship with Serbia and Montenegro is key in any attempts to resolve this issue as is its growing partnership with the European Union.

The US has already taken a strong position in its role as a member of the Contact Group. At a meeting last spring, the Contact Group (made up of the US, the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Russia) agreed that the status quo in Kosovo and Serbia is unsustainable and needs to come to an end. According to their guiding principles, coming up with a solution negotiated between all sides is the highest priority and the process must also reject violence, promote regional stability, create a multi-ethnic Kosovo and the standards (as delineated by the UN) must be implemented. Within this framework, there are a few caveats as well, which proscribe the partition of Kosovo, a return to the status Kosovo had in 1989, and a union between Kosovo and any other country in the region.

Thus far, the status talks have been focusing on the issue of decentralization and the protection of minority rights. DiCarlo explained that the US wants to see continued constructive dialogue between the parties, the implementation of the standards in Kosovo at a more rapid pace and more engagement by the Kosovar leadership in this process. Finally, the US believes that it is essential—both for Kosovo and for the wider region—that the EU make clear that the doors to European institutions are open.

In response to the official presentations by the Serbian and American governments, three independent analysts offered their views on the prospects for the region. Elez Biberaj asserted that Kosovo has entered a critical period. As the negotiations between Albanians in Kosovo and Serbia begin, there is a huge gulf between their positions and desires, which offers little hope for a negotiated settlement. Furthermore, the Albanian position is weakened by the fact that two skilled politicians have left the political landscape, which would be enough to put even a stable country in turmoil. The arrest and transport of Ramush Haradinaj to the Hague and the death of Ibrahim Rugova have left a gap in Kosovoar leadership and there seems to be no one to fill their shoes. Within this politically unstable climate, there are extremists on both sides of the issue who are ready to resort to violence, if given the opportunity.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which has thus far governed Kosovo, has failed to engage locals in the process of governing. As a result, there has been little progress on adopting the standards and Serbs largely refuse to participate in local institutions. Moreover, in the absence of functioning institutions the economic situation has gone from bad to worse.

One problem with the Kosovo issue is that one thing is said in public and quite another in private. For instance, although the official position of Contact Group members has been that no decision on Kosovo's status will be made outside the negotiations, there is wide speculation that in private discussion with Western leaders, Kosovar Albanians have been assured that the region's independence is all but secured. Biberaj suggested that their confidence in getting what they want in the end has stalled Kosovar Albanian's progress in implementing the standards and may hamper their success in the negotiations, since they are likely to make concessions more easily. Meanwhile, the official Serbian position is anti-independence. But in private, Serbian leaders are learning to accept Kosovo's independence. Their interests are served in holding a hard line, since it may help them get a better deal in the end.

In regard to the negotiations, the focus on decentralization may be more problematic than some realize. It is, after all, a loaded term. For the Albanians, it means an Ohrid-style agreement, which would lead to independence and an ethnically diverse Kosovo. By contrast, the Serbs envision a Dayton-like proposal, in which two ethnically based communities would de facto rule themselves, while remaining part of Serbia. In addition to the wide gulf between these positions, no one should underestimate the depth of hostility between Serbs and Albanians. If granted independence, it is unlikely that Kosovo will be a multi-ethnic state, since it will surely push the remaining Serbs out of the country. Despite these difficulties, Biberaj cautioned that partial solutions will not work in the end, and should not be attempted.

Ross Johnson began by rejecting the notion that the outcome of the status negotiations is in doubt. Johnson's offered several explanations for his conviction that Kosovo will ultimately become independent. He claimed that Serbia's formal links to the region de facto ended in 1999, when the UN took over local governance. Seven years later, UNMIK is suffering from "trusteeship fatigue," and the fact that the negotiations have begun in spite of the lack of progress towards adopting the standards underlines the fact that the international community has given up trying to foster economic development in the absence of a clarification on status. Moreover, the international community is on record for supporting the "will of the people," and that the outcome of negotiations should be acceptable to the people of Kosovo. Given the clear Albanian majority, it would seem that only independence would be acceptable to them. Johnson also pointed to the fact that, given the dramatic demographic changes in the region, backpedaling on the 1999 de facto division between Belgrade and Pristina would mean the forcible return of Serbian people to Kosovo.

Given this presumed fait accompli, Johnson outlined five key challenges facing the international community. First, the international community must ensure that the negotiations lead to a practical solution. Vague conceptions of "limited sovereignty" or "conditional independence" would only continue the current state of uncertainty in Kosovo. Second, the only way to preserve any multi-ethnicity in Kosovo is to focus negotiations on decentralization to help the Kosovo Serbs secure security and property rights. This could work if an agreement is made to empower the local obstine (counties) and create transparent ties between Serb regions and Belgrade. This might help ensure that Serbs who stay in Kosovo will feel an obligation and connection to the new state.

The third challenge involves rethinking the status of Kosovo north of Mitrovica, where Serb majorities live. At this point, border adjustments are off the table in the status talks. Yet, the borders that are being so aggressively defended by the international community were drawn by tyrants. Under Tito, Kosovo's administrative borders were redrawn to include Mitrovica, in an effort to boost the percentage of Serbs, thereby helping to support the myth that Kosovo remains the cradle of Serbian civilization. If giving Mitrovica back to Serbia brings about a peaceful settlement on status that is accepted by both sides, why rule it out?

Johnson argued that the fourth challenge facing the international community is making the rule of law the highest priority in the state building process. Kosovo's Albanians must be made to show unity of leadership and be able to put Kosovo's interests before party competition. Moreover, they must show that they will bend over backwards to protect minority rights. Finally, the fifth challenge is to find a solution that will support democracy not just in Kosovo but, more importantly, in Serbia.

Having worked in the region for many years, Brenda Lee Pearson offered an analysis of the evolution of US objectives in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Since 1999, the United States's highest priorities were to save the Dayton Agreement; overthrow the Milosevic regime; and to reduce Russia's influence in the region. With Dayton secured, Milosevic out of power, and the end of Bill Clinton's term, these objectives have been rolled back. As a result, the US, European countries and Russia have developed conflicting objectives, which made it possible for Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo to play one side against the other.

In 2006, Pearson argues, the international community may fail because it does not view the Kosovo problem in its regional context. This limited focus has made the international community blind to the fact that by guarding the Serb enclaves NATO has created a de facto partition within Kosovo. It is clear that UNMIK, among its many failures, has been unable to succeed in integrating all of Kosovo. This fact makes it excessively optimistic to believe either that Kosovo is well-equipped to function as an independent state or that elections in Serbia held after Kosovo's status talks will keep radical nationalists out of power.

Various proposals that have been tabled seem untenable upon closer inspection. For example, the idea of conditional independence eventually leading to EU accession is too much like the status quo to be sustainable. Supporters of this plan underestimate the levels of animosity between Kosovo Albanians and the international community, which bodes poorly for the idea that they will consent to the power asymmetries associated with the EU accession process. This option also involves substantial costs for the EU: in addition to the money and personnel involved, failure in Kosovo will put the future of the Common Foreign Security Policy at grave risk.

The idea that decentralization will work, Pearson argues, is problematic as well. Decentralization would mean that Serb areas in Kosovo would continue to have ties with Serbia, giving Belgrade retrograde powers over Pristina. Kosovo needs to pare down all of the parallel structures that currently make up the region's complex institutional system. Moreover, decentralization would not help solve the leadership vacuum among Kosovo's Albanians, which is a fundamental problem there today.