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Originally published Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Cold War simmering in Kosovo

Stand on the blue neon bridge over the Ibar River here and straddle the front line of today's Cold War. To the south is Kosovo, an ethnic...

Los Angeles Times

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Serbia — Stand on the blue neon bridge over the Ibar River here and straddle the front line of today's Cold War.

To the south is Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian province propped up and championed by the United States. To the north is Serbia, a state that looks solidly to Russia for support and protection.

Kosovo's quest for independence from Serbia is one of several issues (Iran is another) that have brought the United States and Russia into confrontation in ways not seen for many years. And so far, Moscow has managed to seize the initiative here and thwart Washington's plans.

Thousands of wildly cheering pro-independence demonstrators marched through Kosovo's gritty capital, Pristina, Monday, The Associated Press reported, as a sense of euphoria swept the breakaway province preparing to gain statehood early next year.

Yet some wondered whether the seemingly imminent birth of a nation will reignite ancient ethnic hatreds and thrust the Balkans into a new cycle of bloodshed.

Nine months ago, Kosovo's independence seemed inevitable and imminent. Instead, talks dragged on and the breakaway republic's status remains unsettled, its resolution delayed at least until next year. The deadlock threatens regional stability, many officials warn.

That Russia has been able to undermine U.S. intentions owes to the rising influence of President Vladimir Putin and the reluctance of numerous European governments, dependent on Russian oil and gas, to challenge Moscow, analysts say.

Russian support has emboldened the Serbian government in a manner that could hinder democratic reforms.

Russia and Serbia have been allies for generations, thanks in part to their common history, Slavic language and Orthodox Christian faith. But that alliance, in the Serbian government's view, often was more lip-service than real support. Russia, for example, did not block United Nations sanctions imposed in 1992 on what was then Yugoslavia as it tried to suppress rebellions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

Kosovo, with its ethnic Albanian majority, was a different cause.

"Today, when Serbia is at a certain crossroads, she certainly counts on Russia understanding her position," Serbian President Boris Tadic said as his nation began lobbying for Russia's support on Kosovo several months ago. "Russia is one of the pillars of our foreign policy."

In 1999, to a weakened Russia's chagrin, U.S.-led forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombed Serbian troops out of Kosovo. The province has been governed by the United Nations since, with the West supporting its bid for statehood.

Russia says it is especially concerned about Kosovo because of the precedent it says independence would set for separatist movements closer to home, such as in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Maintaining territorial integrity, along with strengthening the state, have been cornerstones of the Putin administration.

The fervor of Russia's support surprised even some Serbian officials and has pushed the government in Belgrade to harden its positions, making compromise virtually impossible. Last week, for the first time a member of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's inner circle, Aleksandar Simic, raised the prospect of warfare as a legitimate option to be considered by the government.

With U.S. encouragement, the Kosovo Albanians long ago hardened their bottom line. But they were willing to accept a U.N. plan of "supervised independence." Belgrade rejected the proposal, saying independence was like pregnancy: Either you are or you're not.

So instead of agreement, it now seems probable that the Kosovo Albanian government will at some point in the next few months declare independence unilaterally, having been assured that key states, starting with the United States, will quickly recognize its new status.

If that happened, the Serb government probably would argue that such independence is illegal and not permanent, since it does not bear the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council. And Putin's intervention has seen to it that the matter will not go before the council, where Russia holds veto power.

Backing Belgrade and undercutting the West has allowed Russia to reassert its regional authority and regain much of the influence it lost with the humiliating NATO intervention in Kosovo, especially in Europe, analysts say. Weakening transatlantic solidarity was a time-honored Cold War-era strategy.

For Serbia's leaders, Russian support is good for domestic consumption, especially before the presidential election to be held in the first part of next year.

And among Kosovo's Albanians, there is a sense that they should have moved to independence a year or two ago, before Putin had a chance to seize the issue.

"Maybe our mistake was not settling this earlier," said Shpend Ahmeti of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Pristina, the Albanian-controlled capital of Kosovo.

This Russian-American Cold War-redux is etched on the ground here.

On one side, few places on Earth are more pro-United States than Kosovo. A boulevard in Pristina is named after Bill Clinton, a larger-than-life poster of him waving to passers-by. Stepping right over the border, however, it all changes. And here in Kosovska Mitrovica, the dividing line is several miles inside Kosovo because the northern half of the city is still controlled by Serbs.

An enormous monument at the Ibar River bridge, staring from the Serb-controlled side to the Albanian-controlled part of the province, pays tribute to the Serbs killed by NATO bombings and the Albanian "terrorists and criminals" of Kosovo.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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