Serbia threatens to resist Kosovo independence plan· Talks start today but could reach deadlock
· International community may impose solution
Almost seven years after Nato bombers drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo, negotiations finally start today to determine what is to become of the Balkan province.
With the majority ethnic Albanian population clamouring for independence and Serbia threatening to declare Kosovo "occupied territory" should it lose the province, the talks are certain to be bitter and probably doomed to failure in getting a settlement that suits both sides.
Anticipating deadlock, a respected thinktank recommended that the international community "impose" independence on the UN-administered region.
In a detailed study issued on Friday, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group predicted that Serbia would refuse to yield Kosovo independence. "To create a stable Kosovo, the international community must dare to impose independence rather than attempting to finesse differences with an ambiguous and unstable settlement," the ICG report recommended.
Under the auspices of the UN envoy and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, the negotiations are to open today in Vienna, concentrating initially on issues of "decentralisation", a codeword for securing the rights of the remaining Serbian minority in an Albanian-dominated Kosovo.
In the run-up to the negotiations, hectic diplomatic activity has been going on behind the scenes, all of it suggesting that the main international powers have already decided that Kosovo will be declared independent by the end of the year, albeit with conditions attached and with an international military presence.
A UN security council debate on Kosovo last week heard that the Kosovan Albanians were still not doing enough to meet the democratic and human rights standards demanded of them. Nonetheless, US, British and French officials all urged a quick settlement, with a British official declaring that independence was probably the only option for Kosovo.
John Sawers, the political director of the Foreign Office, triggered howls of outrage in Serbia earlier this month when he told Serbian leaders that they would lose Kosovo. The main US official dealing with Kosovo, Frank Wisner, sent the same message to the Serbs last week, telling Belgrade that losing Kosovo would strengthen Serbia in the long run.
The status quo is seen as untenable, simultaneously stoking Albanian frustration and Serbian nationalism and grievance - a recipe for future conflict.
The Serbian government in Belgrade is seeking to damage the prospects of independence by refusing to allow the Serbian minority in Kosovo to integrate and to take part in government. The Serbs are offering full autonomy for Kosovo, but insist it must remain part of Serbia.
President Boris Tadic of Serbia argued last week that the issue of Kosovo independence should be shelved for 20 years, a proposal that is unacceptable to the Albanians and the international powers.
The Serbian nationalist leader, Tomislav Nikolic, said he had reached a deal with prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to declare Kosovo "occupied territory" and to resist by "all possible means" any outside imposition of a separate and independent Kosovo.
European leaders hope that Serbian opposition can be bought off with promises of greater integration with - and eventual membership of - the EU for Serbia. But the dynamic could also go the other way, with a nationalist Serbian backlash returning the country to the international pariah status it suffered under the Milosevic regime in the 1990s.
Nato went to war for 11 weeks in 1999 to end the Serbian nationalist campaign of repression and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo orchestrated by Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial in The Hague on genocide charges.
The war ended with the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians and the flight of 200,000 Serbs. Since then Kosovo has remained a province of Serbia, but has enjoyed independence under a heavily criticised UN administration and without the trappings of statehood.