By Douglas Hamilton
BELGRADE, July 12 (Reuters) - Major powers enmeshed in a diplomatic tangle over the future of Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province are trying to free themselves by prompting either the Serbs or the Kosovo Albanians to propose partition.
They are reluctant to suggest it themselves because they have formally ruled out any change of borders or territorial division along ethnic lines in the Balkans.
But with Russia taking Serbia’s side in opposing Kosovo independence — which the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Italy say is inevitable — there is now deadlock at the United Nations. Partition may be the only way out.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, visiting Serbia on Thursday, is the latest high-level figure to offer a small nudge in the direction of partition, simply by not ruling it out.
"Don’t expect France to propose such reshaping," he told a Belgrade newspaper. "At the very least, Belgrade and Pristina would have to agree on it. And in that case I don’t see how France could oppose it," Kouchner said.
British ambassador to Serbia Steven Wordsworth took a similar line to the question earlier this week.
"Partition is not a good idea, for many reasons," Wordsworth told Serbia’s Beta news agency. But he added: "If in the process of talks the two sides agree on that, that would change things."
The United Nations wants to end its eight-year-old administration of Kosovo this year and hand over to a European Union mission to guide the mainly ethnic Albanian province to independence.
The 27-member EU, divided itself over Kosovo, wants the unifying support of a U.N. mandate before it steps into the breach. But it can not get that without Russian consent.
The West’s latest draft U.N. resolution calls for 120 days of further talks between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. No one seems to expect either side to concede on its bottom line.
Yevgeny Primakov was Russia’s prime minister in 1999 when NATO ignored Moscow, sidestepped the United Nations and bombed Serbia for 11 weeks to drive its forces from Kosovo and halt a brutal campaign to put down a separatist insurgency by expelling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians.
Eight years on, Moscow is making up for the diplomatic slight with tough opposition on the independence decision, impressing even those Serbs wary of the Kremlin’s motives.
But this month Primakov was prominently quoted in Serbia’s daily Politika, a newspaper close to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, as saying "Kosovo should be divided".
Officially, Kostunica opposes partition, as does Kosovo Albanian prime minister Agim Ceku. Neither man would likely want to be first to propose it, unless perhaps the move was the initial step in a well-orchestrated diplomatic solution.
So far, it is not clear if or how the ice will be broken and partition placed on the official agenda as an option. It may have to come from a respected figure outside governments.
Dobrica Cosic, leading Serb nationalist thinker and former president, has already broken ranks by proposing partition as the only way to save part of the Serbs’ cherished birthplace and hive off Serbia from its two million hostile Albanians.
The northern slice of Kosovo above the Ibar River is home to some 40,000 Serbs, who dominate. But some 60,000 others live in enclaves to the south, surrounded by two million Albanians.
Primakov, in his commentary, said it was "clear that the parts of Kosovo where the Serbs and the (Orthodox Christian) monasteries are located should belong to Serbia."
Western diplomats are now discussing, hypothetically, where a line of partition might be drawn, and what international person or body might adjudicate such a tricky division.