Washington, 24 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The unanimous Security Council decision today formally begins a UN-mediated process for determining Kosovo's future.
The challenge facing negotiators is considerable. Ethnic Albanian leaders have reiterated that they seek nothing short of independence, while Serbia's prime minister said Kosovo must remain part of the country.
The chief UN administrator for Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen, told reporters that, despite the difficulties ahead, today was still an important day. "I think it is historic that we are finally -- after 6 1/2 years of a holding operation -- moving into status talks," he said. "That in itself is certainly historic and will be very well received, I can say, in Kosovo."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters today that he expects to name Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari as his envoy for the negotiations within the week.
Prior to the council decision, UN envoy Kai Eide urged the launch of talks as the best way forward for Kosovo. He told the Security Council that the situation between majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs is grim. He said fears of violence, unresolved property claims, and weakness in rule of law have prevented large numbers of Serbs from returning.
But despite this, the envoy said, maintaining the status quo in Kosovo would worsen the situation. "I sincerely believe that the time has come to start the future status process," Eide said. "Since last year, a political process has been under way in Kosovo driven by dynamic international engagement. This process cannot be interrupted or brought to a halt. Having moved from stagnation to expectation, stagnation cannot again be allowed to take hold."
Eide stressed the need for Albanian leaders to maintain reforms alongside status negotiations. He said there must continue to be a strong international presence in Kosovo, including judges, prosecutors, and police. "The support required in so many areas cannot be provided by remote control," Eide said. "Entering a future status process does not mean entering the last stage but the next stage of the international presence."
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica urged the Security Council repeatedly to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country. He said Belgrade is committed to a negotiated solution based on compromise.
But Kostunica also stressed that any framework for talks must begin on the basis of Kosovo remaining part of Serbia and Montenegro. "We find it inconceivable, as I'm sure do the members of this august body, that solutions should be imposed against its will against any democracy, least of all solutions that threaten its internationally recognized borders," he said.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders insist on independence from Belgrade. Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi said in a letter to the Security Council that local leaders would "build good institutions, to foster the rule of law and to protect all of Kosovo's citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin."
In a separate interview with Reuters today, Kosumi spoke against a solution dictated by Belgrade. "Belgrade will never have the right to decide Kosovo's future," he said. "If Belgrade was asked, Kosovo might not even exist today."
Kosovo has been a virtual protectorate of the United Nations since 1999, following a NATO bombing campaign against Serbian forces.
The current UN administrator, Soren Jessen-Petersen, vowed to press ahead with reforms, as well as efforts to safeguard any negotiation process. He urged ethnic Albanian leaders to take more decisive steps to build a multiethnic democratic society. He also said Belgrade must seize the opportunity to play a larger role in shaping local institutions and preserving power for minorities in Kosovo:
"We all know that the positions of Belgrade and Pristina of Kosovo status are far apart, but it will remain so until and unless it is resolved by an international managed process. And the sooner that is done the better for the citizens of Kosovo and in the region," Jessen-Petersen said.
The United States and Western European states on the Security Council are believed to be in favor of launching status talks by the end of the year.