Simon Tisdall

Russian opposition to a U.N. plan for Kosovo's conditional statehood may ignite a new conflagration.

IN THE evolving narrative of the Blair era, the Kosovo intervention is described as a key moment whose perceived success led fatefully on to Afghanistan and Iraq. But after eight years of unpaid bills and hard choices deferred, the reckoning is coming due and the legacy storyline is twisting dangerously awry. Kosovo's second war of independence may be only months away.

Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who negotiated an end to the Bosnian war, warned this week that Russian opposition to a United Nations plan for Kosovo's conditional, internationally supervised statehood may ignite a new conflagration. "Russia's actions could determine whether there is another war in Europe," Mr. Holbrooke said in a Washington Post article.

"If Moscow vetoes or delays the [U.N.] plan, the Kosovar Albanians will declare independence unilaterally," he said. "Some countries, including the United States and many Muslim states, would probably recognise them, but most of the European Union would not. A major European crisis would be assured. Bloodshed would return to the Balkans."

After years of getting nowhere on the central issue of Kosovo's final status, the international community is now desperately short of time. Martti Ahtisaari, the U.N. special envoy, will present his plan to the Security Council on March 26. He insists a status decision cannot be delayed any longer.

Many expect a showdown at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in June when Western leaders will confront Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Hardline nationalists among Kosovo's ethnic Albanian Muslim majority are pushing for immediate full independence.

Frayed tempers

Tempers are also fraying in Belgrade where rival politicians, struggling to form a government after an inconclusive January election, agree on two things only: Kosovo is sovereign Serbian territory that will not be surrendered; and the U.N. is acting illegally.

Russia, with ethnic, religious, and strategic ties to Serbia, says Belgrade's wishes must be respected as a matter of principle. But critics say Mr. Putin is using Kosovo for tactical advantage in a wider bid to reassert Russian power on the international stage.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006