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Kosovo: Former U.S. Diplomat Appraises Status-Talks Atmosphere

British peacekeepers in Kosovo (file photo) (AFP) On 14 February, Arbana Vidishiqi of Albanian-language subunit of RFE/RL's South Slavic Languages Service spoke with Shaun Byrnes about the beginning of the Kosovo 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 Kosovo 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 Kosovo'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 Kosovo'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 regards of 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 Kosovo, 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 Kosovo'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 half way. What I think Prishtina should expect conditional independence to mean is some international presence. One, on 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 Kosovo. How do you see this statement, which by Kosovo'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 the 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 Kosovo's independence is declared, Serbia will declare Kosovo 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.

Spotlight On Kosovo

Spotlight On Kosovo

THE WORLD'S NEWEST NATION? The region of Kosovo has a population of more than 2 million, some 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians. It was one of the poorest regions in the former Yugoslavia, but has considerable mineral wealth and an enterprising population, many of whom work abroad but keep close contact with Kosovo. All ethnic Albanian political parties seek independence on the principles of self-determination and majority rule. They feel that Serbia lost its historically based claim to what was its autonomous province under the 1974 constitution by revoking that autonomy in the late 1980s and then conducting a crackdown in 1999 that forced some 850,000 people to flee their homes.

Since NATO's intervention that year to stop the expulsions, Kosovo has been under a UN administration (UNMIK). The UN has begun to gradually transfer functions to elected Kosovar institutions. The primary Serbian concerns are physical safety for the local Serbian minority, a secure return for the tens of thousands of Serbian displaced persons, and protection for historic Serbian religious buildings. The main problems affecting all Kosovars, however, are economic. Until Kosovo's final status is clarified and new legislation passed and enforced, it will not be able to attract the investment it needs to provide jobs for its population, which is one of the youngest and fastest growing in Europe. Prosperity is widely seen as the key to political stability and interethnic coexistence in Kosovo, as is the case in much of Southeastern Europe.

For an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of developments in the disputed region of KOSOVO, click here.

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