Senior U.S. officials have privately dropped their opposition to Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia and say the Clinton administration increasingly sees the province's secession as inevitable.
Officials say the emerging consensus, which amounts to a major shift for the United States, is already having a significant impact on the international peacekeeping operation in Kosovo. The United States has become a leading advocate for the creation of independent institutions and legal structures that tend to isolate the fledgling United Nations protectorate from Yugoslavia's manifold economic problems and political troubles.
U.S. officials deny that the administration's approach is meant to engineer the further breakup of Yugoslavia, as the Belgrade government claims. They say it is meant only to ensure that Kosovo becomes a viable, self-governing democracy with a successful economy. But they add that sovereignty issues should not be allowed to stand in the way of Kosovo's progress because it will likely gain its independence anyway.
"Nobody in Washington expects this not to happen," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition he not be named. "Our attitude before the war was, it's better if it doesn't happen. Now, we know it's clearly on the way. . . . It's the mostly unspoken assumption" of all U.S. policymakers.
Top foreign policy spokesmen in Washington declared that the administration has not altered its policy.
"Our policy on Kosovo independence has not changed. We support the creation of democratic institutions and a market economy, and that's the focus of our effort," national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said through a spokesman.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, "We have always said we do not support independence for Kosovo, and we do not support independence for Kosovo now."
But numerous Western diplomats who follow the situation in Kosovo closely say it is clear that Washington has adopted a more tolerant attitude since the NATO air war earlier this year toward the aspiration of an overwheleming number of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority for independence, an event the United States has previously discouraged out of concern it will destabilize the region. Although officials in the National Security Council are said to be more hesitant, key State Department and Pentagon officials have concluded that Kosovo will one day be independent.
Washington has been less cautious than some European capitals about pursuing policies in Kosovo that Yugoslavia claims are accelerating the province's drift toward independence. These include the recent adoption of a new currency and special border tariff within Kosovo, as well as the creation of an independent police force and a Kosovo "protection" corps that includes former ethnic Albanian guerrillas who fought for Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia and Serbia, its dominant republic.
The United States is pressing -- with support from some European nations and from Bernard Kouchner, the U.N. administrator in Kosovo -- for approval of a U.N. regulation giving the U.N. office here the right to issue temporary travel documents to Kosovo residents.
A senior U.S. official said Washington still accepts that Kosovo's future legal status is to be resolved after an international conference, which will be held sometime after the Clinton administration leaves office and probably after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is out of power.
"The issue of eventual status for Kosovo -- what their relationship to Serbia will be, what their relationship to Yugoslavia will be, what their relationship to the whole region will be -- will be taken up in the future," an administration official said.
Differences within the Western alliance about Kosovo's independence are "a constant factor" in the peacekeeping effort now, a U.S. official said. A U.N. official said the differences stem from "an irreconcilable mix of two principles" embodied in Resolution 1244, which provides the legal underpinning for the deployment of more than 50,000 NATO troops and a U.N. civil administration inside Kosovo.
"On the one hand, it calls for a civil administration and says you can do anything. On the other hand, it says you can do nothing if the state [Yugoslavia] disagrees. But so far, it has disagreed with everything . . . and we have to make sure that this place works," the official said.
The NATO deployment followed a 78-day allied bombing campaign against Yugoslavia that ended with an agreement by Belgrade to withdraw its army and police forces, which had been battling separatist ethnic Albanian rebels for 16 months.
U.N. administrator Kouchner, a French humanitarian aid official who was initially viewed with suspicion in Washington but is now regarded as a valuable ally, faces decisions in coming weeks about whether and how to privatize a mine in the town of Trepce, several large power plants on the outskirts of Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and the local cellular telephone network -- all owned by the Yugoslav state.
The United States favors moving swiftly on privatization to attract foreign investment and create jobs, but the United Nations is still unsure of its legal footing, several officials said.
Senior U.N. officials have objected to some of Kouchner's proposals. His decision last month to grant the German mark status as the province's official currency was "a mistake," one official said. Another U.N. official said the proposal to issue U.N. travel documents, akin to temporary passports, to Kosovo residents has also met with opposition at U.N. headquarters.
More controversy is expected over a U.N. decision that phone numbers registered under the province's new cellular network will not retain the "38" Yugoslav country code.
The Yugoslav government is angry that such measures are even being considered. Stanimir Vukicevic, its top representative in Pristina, says that Kouchner has weakened Yugoslavia's links with Kosovo.
"The customs service employs not even one Serb. There is no Yugoslav flag at border crossings . . . or any other symbol that would mark the territory of the state," he said. Similarly, the decision on the German mark "is making it a habit within the population that the dinar is not the local currency any more. . . . Currency is a part of sovereignty."
Russia, an ally of Belgrade that has 3,600 soldiers in Kosovo as part of the peacekeeping force, has also objected to any moves that weaken Yugoslav sovereignty.
An illustration of the new U.S. attitude was on display earlier this week, when Washington was more supportive than its European allies of a plan to allow Kosovo Liberation Army members to form a new Kosovo corps that ostensibly will be responsible for humanitarian tasks but also will be allowed to train with weapons. The KLA's leaders have said they view the organization as Kosovo's future army.
A senior U.S. official indicated that discussion of independence was premature, but left open the possibility that it would happen. He said the administration wants the Kosovo Albanians to focus immediately on the hard work of building democracy and a free economy. "There's no reason to skip ahead and talk about independence when you don't have the institutions that would make the place viable," the official said.