A US anti-missile defense system, pipeline politics, Polish meat, press freedom and Iran policy have all been issues in the disputes between the West and Russia ahead of the G8 summit. Statehood for Kosovo is the latest.
UN and NATO have kept the peace in Kosovo
Climate change and aid to Africa have long been on the agenda for the G8 summit which kicks off on Wednesday in Heiligendamm on the north-eastern German coast. But the gathering of rich industrial nations that includes Russia threatens to be overshadowed by divisions within the club from an unexpected source: Kosovo.
The tiny autonomous province in Serbia, which is under UN administration, hasn't grabbed banner headlines since 1999, when US-led air strikes forced out Slobodan Milosevic's marauding army. But that's mainly because NATO's huge international contingent has kept the peace.
Territorial and ethnic tensions in the remains of the former Yugoslavia are still simmering below the surface, and now with the UN road map for Kosovo's independence from Serbia on the table, the Western powers want to finally put the last chapter of the Balkans saga to bed.
The world's political powers meeting at the Group of Eight summit this week in Germany should decide whether the UN Security Council should proceed with a draft resolution dealing with the future of Kosovo, the council president said Monday.
"We'll see how the situation will evolve," said Belgium's UN Ambassador Johan Verbeke. "For the time being, it's a wait-and-see period; it's a question of days, not weeks."
Verbeke, whose country holds the rotating council presidency for June, said once the eight world leaders give the go-ahead, he will put the Kosovo issue on the council's monthly agenda. He said the decision also belongs to capitals of 15 countries on the council.
Rice (second from right) and Lavrov (second from left) exchanged barbs over missile defense and Kosovo
At last week's foreign ministers meeting in Potsdam -- best known as the venue for the postwar meeting of US, British and Soviet leaders -- the Cold War lines between Europe and United States on one side, and Russia on the other, were clearly drawn again.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov not only exchanged barbs about Moscow's opposition to plans for US anti-missile shield installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, but also over the future status of Kosovo.
Lavrov denounced the plan drawn up by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which seeks to transfer custody of the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian province to the EU in the transitional period to nationhood. The plan was approved by the parliament in Kosovo, but rejected by the autonomous region's Serb minority and Belgrade.
The Kremlin's adamant opposition took the Western allies by surprise, although Lavrov stopped short of saying that Russia would exercise its veto power in the UN's Security Council.
One expert says the reasons Moscow is supporting a fellow Slavic state are complicated and need to be understood within the broad scope of Russia's relations with the EU and US.
Patience for independance in Kosovo is wearing thin
"Russia has no leverage over the Balkan states and knows it. There's no way that Russia could stop the Ahtisaari plan if the West stands united in favor of it. Its veto power in the Security Council is symbolic. After all the US invaded Iraq without a UN mandate," said Alexander Rahr, program director for Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
"The Russians are putting up a front. They have their national pride, and don't want to be seen as a junior partner of the West. Remember they were humiliated back in the 1990s," said Rahr, referring to a time when an economically weak and chaotic Russia that had emerged from communism was unable to protect its Serb ally in the war that NATO waged without UN authorization.
"Now the Russians have got oil money," added Rahr, who explained that the windfall from its energy exports and increasing strategic importance because of it has led to a new assertiveness in President Vladimir Putin's dealings with the West.
Besides Russia has a point in pushing the conflicting parties -- ethnic Albanians and Christian Serbs -- to work out their own lasting compromise, which could be preferable to the great powers imposing a nation-state from above, according to Rahr.
Need to win over the Serbs
"The Serbs won't agree to Kosovo's independence today, but who says they can't be won over in say, two years time? Young Serbs are not all nationalistic. You need to win them over, make them European. We in the EU made the mistake of not inviting Serbia to join us," he said.
Another concern shared by Moscow and other countries is the precedent a UN resolution would set, giving impetus to independence movements elsewhere, such as the Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey and the Chechens in Russia.
The UN plan named after Martti Ahtisaari has EU and US support
Other specialists say, however, that Vladimir Putin's motivation for isolating Russia against the EU and US on the Kosovo issue is a puzzle, since he is not running for reelection when his term expires in 2008 and, with high domestic approval ratings anyway, he does not need to pander to an electorate at home.
Ever a tinderbox?
"Kosovo is part of a host of issues -- energy security, missile defense, human rights -- that Putin has used to wreak havoc, to divide the EU from within and split the EU and US," said Julianne Smith, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"If the Ahtisaari plan falls off the table, we could see instability and violence again in the Balkans, which is not in Russia's interest either," said Smith, who explained that keeping the issue of Kosovo's independence on the back burner risks creating a backlash among the Albanian Kosovars, whose patience is wearing thin after seven years as a ward of the United Nations.
"Kosovo is a tinderbox, and it won't take much to reignite it. There is no other possible solution (to the Ahtisaari plan). These two sides (Serbs and Albanian Kosovars) will never come together," said Smith.