The negotiations in Vienna are being mediated by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who was appointed by the United Nations to steer the talks toward an agreement.
A spokeswoman for Ahtisaari said the first round of talks will deal with local-government reform aimed at enhancing the rights of Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo.
On 19 February, a member of the Serb negotiating team, Slobodan Samardzic, said the Serb community in Kosovo should be given self-rule in areas where they form a majority.
Lutfi Hazir, the head of the ethnic Albanian side, said the purpose of the talks is to move the province away from Belgrade "for good."
Diplomats from the so-called Contact Group -- the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia -- have already agreed on a set of guidelines for Kosovo's future.
Those rules say the province cannot return to its previous status under direct Serb rule, be partitioned along ethnic lines or be joined to another country in the region, such as Albania.
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.
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