The US fears that Europe will cave in to Serb pressure for Kosovo to be partitioned in a move which diplomats warn could trigger ethnic violence.
US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks show that senior Serbian officials have privately told Washington and the EU that the government of Kosovo will never gain full control of the contested territory – and indirectly pushed for partition.
Senior US officials are fiercely opposed to what they see as Serbian president Boris Tadić's concerted and patient campaign to partition Kosovo, which, if successful, would defeat a decade of American foreign policy. The officials condemn European "vacillation and weakness" on the contest.
Eleven years after Nato went to war in the Balkans to bomb Serbian forces out of Kosovo, and almost three years after Kosovo declared its independence as a majority ethnic Albanian state, Serbian intransigence and its daily efforts to entrench control over the northern part of Kosovo risk reigniting the ethnic conflict, the US embassy has warned Washington.
"Failure to act soon means losing northern Kosovo and will reopen the Pandora's box of ethnic conflict that defined the 1990s," the then US ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, wrote this year. "The time is right to end the years of drift on the north and to alter the dynamic of a hardening partition between the north and the rest of Kosovo … The current situation is untenable and deteriorating. The aim is to stop the rot."
Kosovo goes to the polls this weekend in a keenly awaited general election that represents a further milestone in its attempt to become a fully fledged independent state.
Partition has been a strong campaign issue, with analysts and diplomats anxious to see how many Kosovo Serbs vote.
Senior officials in Belgrade warned the Americans and the Europeans that any attempt to impose integration in northern Kosovo around the Serbian nationalist stronghold town of Mitrovica would require Nato military force and destabilise the region.
Jovan Ratković, Tadić's foreign policy adviser and the key official handling negotiations over Kosovo with western diplomats, told the new US ambassador in Belgrade that the Serbs of northern Kosovo would never accept government by Albanians.
"These people have never lived with Albanians, have never felt themselves part of Kosovo and won't accept rule by Pristina," Ratković told the US ambassador, Mary Warlick, in February this year. "Belgrade is not trying to change the reality on the ground for Kosovar Albanians, but changing the reality for Kosovo Serbs would also be destabilising."
Ratković added that the US and the EU were considering "military intervention" to forcibly incorporate northern Kosovo.
A month earlier Ratković laid out a scenario tantamount to partition to Robert Cooper, Britain's EU troubleshooter on the Balkans and Iran, and policy adviser to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief.
"Ratković more explicitly told Cooper that while Belgrade would need to accept that it would not govern Kosovo again, Kosovo would have to come to the realisation that it would not effectively be able to extend its governance north of the Ibar river" at Mitrovica, reports another cable.
While Serbia publicly and constantly affirms that it will never accept or recognise an independent Kosovo, which it views as sacred historical Serbian territory, the cables reveal Belgrade's acknowledgment that Albanian-controlled Kosovo is lost and that Tadić's ambitions of joining the EU will suffer if he continues a hard line on the territory.
"Tadić reportedly told Cooper that he recognised that there needed to be a degree of clarity and finality to any outcome, cognisant that the EU would be unwilling to accept another 'Cyprus-like' state as a member."
Until 2008, Serbia was ruled by nationalists under prime minister Vojislav Koštunica, who cemented control of northern Kosovo and vowed no surrender. Hopes have been high in the west that under Tadić's pro-western democrats a settlement could be reached. Under EU prodding in September, Tadić dropped a UN campaign aimed at invalidating Kosovo's independence and reopening negotiations on its status, and agreed to EU-mediated talks with the Kosovo government.
But Washington has been told by its embassy that the Tadić government, while better dressed and better-behaved, may be pursuing the same policies as its hardline predecessor.
"Though the pro-western government of Tadić is an improvement on its predecessor in many ways, the general parameters of Serbia's Kosovo policy remain unchanged," the US embassy in Pristina advised the US vice-president, Joe Biden, ahead of a visit to Kosovo last year.
"The north has become a proxy battleground for two differing visions of the region's future: for Serbs and for Belgrade (notably for President Tadić himself) it represents that part of Kosovo most likely to be retained by Serbia in a partition scenario as a precursor to Serbia's accession into the EU, while for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo retention of the north remains the symbolic key to proving Kosovo's legitimate sovereignty."
This year the Americans reported Tadić's policy on northern Kosovo had become "increasingly aggressive". "An impending frozen conflict in northern Kosovo remains the greatest threat to a safe and secure environment in Kosovo in the near and medium terms."
The region was a "home base for illegal Serbian parallel structures and a region rife with smuggling and organised crime. Kosovo institutions have exercised little control there since 1999. The result has been a zone where customs collection is essentially on an 'honour system', courts don't function, international police all but fear to tread, and the only municipal governments are those elected by Serbia."
The cable says this represents "the very real threat of the partition of Kosovo – a reversal of 10 years of US government policy".
The prediction is bleak. "We can expect regular ethnic confrontations – with attendant casualties, including among international peacekeepers."
There are about 8,500 Nato peacekeepers in Kosovo, down from 15,000 last year, while the EU last year launched its biggest ever foreign operation, a rule of law mission with 2,500 troops.
American officials in Belgrade and Pristina repeatedly question European resolve and staying power on preserving Kosovo's territorial integrity and resisting Serbian pressure, while crediting Belgrade with using effective scare tactics on the Europeans.
The Europeans, observed Tina Kaidanow, the US ambassador in Pristina last year, "seem to have abandoned any attempt at real leadership to push for concessions. We can already sense a strong degree of 'Kosovo fatigue' among our European counterparts which, coupled with the palpable sense here in the region that Europe has given up on further expansion, could prove a bad combination". Under the Kosovo independence terms drafted by the international envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, it is to be decentralised to ensure ethnic Serbs run their own local government.
But the EU's Cooper told Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for Europe, in Stockholm last year that "decentralisation in Kosovo will not succeed".
"Belgrade has shrewdly judged that raising the spectre of confrontation rattles our EU partners and is an effective tactic for derailing the strategy" for reintegrating northern Kosovo, Dell said in January. "Brussels bureaucrats have long been anxious about taking any difficult decision on the north."
His predecessor, Kaidanow, gave the ambitious European mission in Kosovo a mixed review last year. "If it is to succeed, it needs to make progress on the critical issues of the north, but that progress will only come if Brussels applies equal pressure on Belgrade and Pristina, rather than acceding to Belgrade's political demands and alienating their Kosovo counterparts. Thus far the jury is still out on whether the EU will show the necessary degree of political leadership.
"The intensified problems we predict as a consequence of Belgrade's intransigence – especially those surrounding Kosovo's north, where Serb extremists have shown their readiness for continued confrontation – could easily lead some queasy Europeans to back away from their commitments over time and settle for a partition-like outcome."
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