Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his first major policy speech, Serbia's new prime minister ruled out independence for Kosovo.
Presenting his new government to parliament on 2 March, Vojislav Kostunica said resolving the status of Kosovo will be a priority for Belgrade. But Kostunica, who describes himself as a moderate nationalist, said that "for Serbia, the word 'status' in relation to Kosovo can have many meanings, but not independence."
He proposed dividing -- or "cantonizing" -- the UN-run province along ethnic lines. Cantonization, he said, is necessary to ensure the "survival" of ethnic Serbs remaining in the province.
"Belgrade is responsible for the bloodshed and the war in Kosovo, and it is no longer in a position to decide Kosovo's destiny."
"Essential autonomy of the Serbian community in Kosovo means territorial autonomy, the division of Kosovo into entities, or the cantonization of Kosovo-Metohija, and the corresponding cultural and individual autonomy."
Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since the end of the 1999 NATO campaign to end the Serbian crackdown against the ethnic Albanian majority. Serbian leaders insist Belgrade should regain control of the province, while Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are determined it should be independent.
A decision on Kosovo's final status will be taken by the UN Security Council, possibly next year. The issue is so contentious that it prevented direct official contacts between Belgrade and Pristina for years. And when the first high-level meeting came -- in Vienna last October -- it was more a photo opportunity than the start of real dialogue.
Kosovar Albanian leaders were quick to reject Kostunica's cantonization proposal, saying the time for segregation along ethnic lines is "long past."
Kole Berisha, the vice president of the Democratic League of Kosovo, told RFE/RL, "Belgrade is responsible for the bloodshed and the war in Kosovo, and it is no longer in a position to decide Kosovo's destiny. It is the Albanian people, the leaders of Kosovo and, of course, Brussels and Washington who will decide on Kosovo. Therefore, I do not take seriously Mr. Kostunica's proposals."
A spokesman for the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) said the proposal is unacceptable and reiterated that a decision on the final status issue lies with the Security Council.
UNMIK spokesman Sunil Narula said, "I think cantonization of Kosovo is an unacceptable solution. Where UNMIK is concerned, we do not accept cantonization of Kosovo."
James Lyon, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, told RFE/RL that although its wording is new, Kostunica's proposal appears to be rephrasing old Serbian policies.
"I think what he said -- in terms of the words he used -- was a new policy. But it seems to sum up the general policy direction that Serbia has been following up until now, even though it has to be yet explicitly stated."
The details of Kostunica's proposal are not immediately clear, however. Lyon explains, "The reasoning behind [this proposal] is that if cantonization, if the cantonal system -- an entity system -- is created, then should the Albanian entity of Kosovo call for independence, and the Serbian entity will say it doesn't want independence and wishes to join Serbia or it will claim some right of self-determination which will permit it to join Serbia. So I think that is the long-term reasoning behind such a move."
Shortly before he was assassinated last year, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said a multiethnic Kosovo was an "illusion" and proposed dividing the region along ethnic lines.
Boris Tadic, the recently elected leader of Djindjic's Democratic Party, was quoted yesterday as saying that if majority ethnic Albanians have the right to demand autonomy from Belgrade, then majority Serb-populated enclaves in Kosovo "have the right to demand autonomy from Pristina."
Also yesterday, Nebojsa Covic, the Belgrade official in charge of Kosovo, said Serbia opposes dividing Kosovo and that the aim of the entities would be to "preserve all ethnic groups."
The UN-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Pristina deal with everyday, practical issues. UNMIK confirmed that the working group meeting today in Pristina will discuss power supplies. Another meeting is planned for 9 March in Belgrade that will focus on missing persons.
Direct dialogue is one of the UN-set standards Kosovo must fulfill before any discussion on its final status.
(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)