Direct talks will begin today at the United Nations over the thorny issue of Kosovan independence.
Western preference may be for independence to be granted, but thinking on this issue is predictably skewed. The EU/American consensus is that Milosovic era aggression and heavily ethnic Albanian demographics makes Kosovo effectively an exception to international law (which fully recognises Serb sovereignty over the area).
A number of factors should be taken into consideration should the talks break down and should western governments consider recognising any unilateral declaration of independence.
Firstly the current Serbian regime is completely unrecognisable from that of Milosovic. Huge strides have been made to instigate democracy and build civic society in Belgrade. The government, under Prime Minister Tadic, is offering unprecedented autonomy and competences to Kosovan representatives, as well as significant input in federal government. In effect the Kosovan administration's remit will cover all aspects of government, barring foreign policy. This is a generous offer to a region so central to Serbia's conception of its own identity.
Secondly the existing demographics (only 10% of Kosovo's population is now composed of ethnic Serbs) is a result of many years of ethnic cleansing by Kosovan Albanians. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of post-Yugoslav politics in the region, which paints the Serbs as the sole aggressors. Whilst Serb nationalism was the predominant cause of war and ethnic cleansing in some areas, this was resoundingly not the case in Kosovo. The most serious refugee crises in Kosovo came after NATO intervention. Up to this point more lives in the conflict had been claimed by the KLA's sectarian terrorist campaign against the Orthodox Serbs. Since the 1970s the titular Kosovan Albanian autonomous administration had pursued a campaign to erase the Serb identity in the province. Recognition of a unilaterally declared Kosovo would reward this behaviour and set a dangerous precedent.
Which neatly raises the third point, encouraging a whole series of secessionist campaigns from national minorities throughout the region and beyond. Russia has already raised the spectre of Southern Ossetia in Georgia which it may be tempted to recognise, should western governments choose to recognise Kosovo.
Fourthly, Kosovo is already a haven of organised crime and smuggling. An independent Kosovo would surely be worse.
If Kosovo unilaterally declares indepedence and is recognised by EU states or the US, Serbs will justfiably doubt the path of progress down which they have embarked. At this time Serbia needs support to continue remarkable progress in building a fledgling democracy and in tempering the worst excesses of a nationalism which is never far beneath the surface. For the stability of the region and for the preservation of international law, pressure must be exerted on Kosovan Albanians to accept the just compromise being offered to them.