"There is virtual unity on Kosovo," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt Monday told reporters in Brussels after a U.N. deadline to solve the status conflict between Serbia and its breakaway province had run out. Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn added that Cyprus was alone in having "an enormous problem" in backing independence for the Serbian province, which is administered by the United Nations since international forces in 1999 ended a bloody war between Serbian troops and Albanian rebels in the Balkans that had sparked heavy civilian casualties. But Serbia and its powerful ally Russia simultaneously issued warnings of a dangerous "chain reaction" if the EU recognizes Kosovo's independence.
"In that case those countries would be violating international law, and we will not support the violation of international law," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Kosovo's recognized independence "will create a chain reaction throughout the Balkans and other areas of the world," he added.
Monday's meeting in Brussels came ahead of a Dec. 19 UNSC meeting that will deal with Kosovo, and on the same day when a deadline for the negotiators of the so-called Kosovo-Troika (comprised of the EU, the United States and Russia) ran out.
The Troika since August had tried to strike a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina after a plan for internationally monitored independence proposed by Martti Ahtisaari, the U.N. special envoy for Kosovo, failed to make it beyond the U.N. Security Council because of Russian veto threats.
Observers say Moscow is using the Kosovo issue as a test to what extent it can minimize U.S. and NATO influence in the Balkans -- although its real interests in the Serbian breakaway province are rather limited.
Moscow and Belgrade are still in favor of extending the negotiations, but most Western politicians and experts feel there is nothing much more to talk about.
"The distance between Belgrade and Pristina is huge; it hasn't closed since the very beginning and there's no prospect of a compromise from either side," Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank, said last week in a telephone conference.
So prospects for an easy way out of the crisis are gloomier than ever, with Kosovar leaders already having announced they will declare independence sometime early next year, probably after the Serbian elections in January.
While officials in Pristina, among them former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci (who is pinned to become Kosovo's next prime minister), have vowed not to take any bold steps without approval from Brussels and Washington, Monday's summit brought Kosovo one step closer to independence.
Ahead of the meeting, however, several EU states including Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Greece, had not been ecstatic about backing a unilateral recognition of Kosovar independence out of fear such a move would fuel separatist movements within their own borders.
That these countries now seem to be willing to bury their opposition is mainly rooted in "a desire to preserve the unity of the European Union," said Dusan Reljic, Balkans expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "But for Cyprus, it would be suicidal to back the move," he told United Press International in a telephone interview Monday.
The EU member is said to fear that its Turkish-occupied northern region could follow Kosovo's example and push for independence. And there are other places in Europe where ethnic secessionist movements are percolating, for example in South Ossetia, in Abkhazia, and in Chechnya.
"From the perspective of precedent and demonstration effects," accepting Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence would be "a dangerous move," Kupchan said. It's also one that will undermine relations between the EU and Russia, as well as Russia and the United States, and may drive Serbia away from the EU and closer to Russia, both experts concluded.
Aside from these potential side effects, the EU has other problems to solve: Brussels is currently scrambling to find a legal way out of the UNSC Resolution 1244, which pins Kosovo as part of Serbia; while the resolution won't be canceled because of likely Russian and Chinese vetoes, EU diplomats are in negotiations with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to find a legally sound way to replace NATO troops on the ground with an EU force.
"The West won't take any quick steps because it needs time to find a solution to this problem," Reljic told UPI.
Western diplomats are moreover worried about an outbreak of violence in the Balkans after Kosovo declares its independence.
"There will be protests. There could be riots," Kupchan said. "Kosovo is to the Serbs, in some ways, as Jerusalem is to the Israelis or Palestinians."
The international community (NATO and the EU have some 17,000 troops in the region) has since sent additional soldiers into the Balkans and put them on alert.
But it may not be sufficient to just send men and firepower: Serbia has threatened to cut electricity supply to and trade relations with Kosovo in case of its unilaterally declared independence.
"That means the EU would have to step in," Reljic said. "And that would be a very costly affair."