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Balkan Report: February 27, 2006

27 February 2006, Volume 10, Number 2

KOSOVA STATUS TALKS BEGIN. Almost seven years after a NATO air campaign drove Serbian forces out of Kosova, talks that will determine the province's final status have begun. The 20-21 February negotiations in Vienna will be one round of many in a process that is expected to take several months (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 May and 9 December 2005).

But the ultimate outcome is not really in doubt. Officials from the six-country Contact Group (France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have emphasized that point to Belgrade. The international community -- including Serbia's traditional allies, such as Russia -- wants a permanent solution to the Kosova conflict. And the consensus opinion appears to be that the best solution is some form of independence.

Alexander Anderson heads the Kosova office of the International Crisis Group, a leading international think tank. "Within the last month, we've had U.S., U.K., and European Union envoys telling Belgrade that the likely, favored result of this process is going to be Kosovo's independence and that it needs to concentrate on negotiating the best deal it can for Kosovo's Serbs," Anderson says. "Official Belgrade is very much in a state of denial about this, and this is the psychological background against which these talks in Vienna...are starting."

Independence for Kosova was not always the favored solution and it remains anathema to Belgrade. So what has changed? Anderson cites several factors. The international community, and Europe in particular, is eager to set its "Balkan House" in order. The EU has started accession talks with Croatia; it has recognized Macedonia as a membership candidate; and it has signed cooperation pacts with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bulgaria and Romania are due to join the body next year or in 2008 at the latest. In this context, Kosova stands out as unfinished business.

The riots that erupted in the province in March 2004 showed that Kosova's 90 percent ethnic Albanian population long ago ran out of patience with the temporary UN administration (UNMIK), and wants a permanent resolution (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004).

Finally, Russia's willingness to side with the other members of the Contact Group and Serbia's impractical proposals for Kosova appear to have given rise to the consensus for independence. "If we look at Serbia today, are we to imagine for example that Kosovo Albanians would be invited to take their place in a Serbian parliament where we have a political system at the moment, where the rabidly racist anti-Albanian Radical Party [SRS] is touching 40 percent in the opinion polls?" Anderson says. "We have the Serbia-Montenegro union in a position at the moment where it is also a very high possibility that Montenegro may secede during the course of this year. Serbia has, for example, said that Kosovo could not and should not have a seat in the United Nations and could not represent itself abroad and it would have to do this through Serbia."

Clearly, says Anderson, the international community believes such proposals have no chance of success. Members of the Contact Group, he believes, are mindful of the Serbian argument that independence for Kosova could tip the political balance in Serbia and bring the ultranationalists to power. But faced with difficult options, they appear to have concluded there is no other choice.

If Belgrade chooses to walk out of the talks, observers say a solution will be imposed on it. There is hope in Brussels that the lure of eventual EU accession will induce Belgrade to remain in the negotiations. Many issues need to be resolved, from how much autonomy the Serbian minority will receive in Kosova to what the role of the international community will be after independence. A deal will not come without conditions for Prishtina, says Anderson.

"Certainly, the international community wants to keep a lot of strings attached to any prospective Kosovo independence," Anderson argues. "The likely heaviest burden is going to fall upon the European Union, and it's mainly the European Union that is already beginning planning for what is likely to be a smaller, more concentrated international mission to replace UNMIK from 2007. The biggest question [is] to what extent should the international community retain some form of override powers or reserve executive powers in an independent Kosovo?"

The Contact Group says it wants all of these issues to be decided by year's end. At that point, a new resolution will be submitted to the UN Security Council to formalize Kosova's new status. (Jeremy Bransten)

FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT LOOKS AT STATUS TALKS. Arbana Vidishiqi of the Albanian-language subunit of RFE/RL's South Slavic Languages Service spoke on 14 February with Shaun Byrnes about the beginning of the Kosova final-status talks. In 1998-99, Byrnes was chief of the U.S. Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission and then, briefly, the first U.S. diplomatic representative in Kosova after the cessation of hostilities and the arrival of KFOR and UNMIK. Now he is director for Europe and Central Asia of Cui Prodest, an international consulting firm headquartered in Rome, Italy.

RFE/RL: Mr. Byrnes, we are just a few days away from the official beginning of the talks on Kosova's status. How do you see this process evolving in general?

Shaun Byrnes: I think it will be very complex, and I think it is going to probably take a little bit longer than people anticipate. The international community, I think, has clearly recognized there is no alternative to independence for Kosovo, but they will seek to use the talks to do two things. One is to assure themselves that the new Kosovo government will in fact make an effort to ensure that the minorities enjoy equal rights and that the Serbs who left are welcome to return. Secondly, the international community hopes that it will be possible to built good relations from the outset between newly independent Kosovo and Serbia.

RFE/RL: The decentralization issue is expected to be among the most important ones in minority-rights protection. What do Kosova's institutions need to offer, genuinely offer in this regard? What would be the basic and acceptable elements?

Byrnes: As I said earlier, they need to persuade the international community that they will make vigorous and effective efforts to ensure that not only the Serbian minority but other minorities will enjoy equal rights in Kosovo. In particular, with regard to the Serbs, that the Serbs will feel secure and feel that they will have a decent economic perspective. But what they hope to do is use the decentralization mechanism to arrive at this desired goal.

RFE/RL: Some Western analysts are saying the whole negotiating process is not about the status of Kosova, but about the status of its Serbs. Would you agree?

Byrnes: I have seen that statement and I think it is a very insightful statement, but I don't think that is entirely what it is all about.

RFE/RL: Conditional independence seems to be the most-mentioned option for the final status. In your opinion, what would conditional independence mean in Kosova's case?

Byrnes: That's a very good question. It is one of the questions that I spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about myself. The best answer I have seen so far is one I read in the Belgrade papers recently and that was what apparently U.S. special envoy for Kosovo Frank Wisner reportedly told one of the Serbian hosts -- it may have been Prime Minister [Vojislav] Kostunica -- that independence is like pregnancy, there is no halfway.

What I think Prishtina should expect conditional independence to mean is some international presence. One, on the part of NATO to ensure Kosovo's external security for some period after independence, until, if you will, the neighborhood has accepted it. And secondly, a civilian international presence, which would be aimed at helping Prishtina set up new institutions or strengthening the new institutions, particularly in the area of the rule of law, with the ultimate aim of accelerating Kosovo's entering into Europe, which is, after all, where Kosovo's destiny lies.

RFE/RL: The Contact Group is seeking from Belgrade to bear in mind that the final settlement needs to be acceptable to the people of Kosova. How do you see this statement, which by Kosova's institutions was regarded as historical?

Byrnes: I think it is historical, though it is a follow-on to an earlier historical statement that, I believe, was made after the September 2003 Contact Group meeting, which said for the first time that there will be no return to the pre-March 1999 regime. That was a diplomatic way of telling both Prishtina, and particularly Belgrade, that Kosovo was going to become independent.

This recent statement is a much more direct way of telling Belgrade, and I think the real message is for Belgrade. I think there is a purpose here and that is -- I think, as an analyst looking at this from a distance-- that there is disappointment in the Contact Group at Belgrade's frank lack of political courage for preparing Serbian public opinion for what is coming -- and what is coming is Kosovo's independence.

I would put the London Contact Group statement together with the statements that the British Foreign Office political director, [John] Sawyers, what he said to Kosovo's Serbs in Prishtina and to Kostunica and [Serbian President Boris] Tadic in Belgrade, plus what [EU special envoy on Kosovo] Stephan Lehne said in Belgrade, plus what Frank Wisner, the U.S. special envoy, said. It is all part of a package and that is the international community is going to respect the will of the majority of Kosovo's population. It is important now for Belgrade to recognize and to begin to prepare for that.

RFE/RL: Did Belgrade get the message, having in mind the late warning coming from officials in Belgrade that if Kosova's independence is declared, Serbia will declare Kosova an occupied territory?

Byrnes: That statement wasn't made by the government of Serbia. I understand that was made by [Serbian Radical Party leader] Tomislav Nikolic. I would add that I think that most senior officials in Belgrade, in fact, recognize that there is no alternative to Kosovo's independence. I think President Tadic in particular has certainly hinted at that in public statements. But I think this is a domestic political issue. By the end of the year, there have to be parliamentary elections and I think major political factors in Serbia are trying to figure out how do they play the Kosovo issue so that they are not damaged by it.

RECENT QUOTATIONS: "There's no blood on the floor and they're still in the room." -- Unnamed international official during the 20 February round of the Kosova talks in Vienna. Quoted by Reuters.