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Kosovo: Talks On Province's Future Begin In Vienna

Lufti Haziri, the ethnic-Albanian delegate to the talks, arrives in Vienna on 20 February (epa) Serbian and ethnic-Albanian negotiators began direct talks today on the future status of Kosovo. The negotiations in Vienna are being overseen by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, acting as UN mediator, and the international community is signaling it favors independence for the Serbian province. That means the talks are meant to decide how, not if, Kosovo soon emerges as the world’s newest nation.

PRAGUE, 20 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Almost seven years after a NATO air campaign drove Serb forces out of Kosovo, talks that will determine the province’s final status have begun.

The two days of discussions under way in Vienna will be one round of many in a process that is expected to take several months.

A Long Process, But Outcome Not In Doubt

But the ultimate outcome is not really in doubt. Officials from the six-nation Contact Group on Kosovo, which includes Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, 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 Kosovo conflict. And the consensus opinion appears to be that the best solution is some form of independence.

Alexander Anderson heads the Kosovo 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 today are starting."

What Has Changed?

Independence for Kosovo was not always the favored solution and it remains anathema to Belgrade. So what has changed?

Serbian delegates Leon Kojen (left) and Slobodan Samardzic at the Vienna talks (epa)

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. Bulgaria and Romania are due to join the body next year or in 2008 at the latest. In this context, Kosovo stands out as unfinished business.

The ethnic riots that erupted in the province in 2004 showed that Kosovo’s 90 percent ethnic-Albanian population long ago ran out of patience with the temporary UN administration, and wants a permanent resolution.

Finally, Russia’s willingness to side with the other members of the Contact Group and Serbia’s impractical proposals for Kosovo 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 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 says, are mindful of the Serbian argument that independence for Kosovo 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.

An Imposed Solution?

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 lead Belgrade to remain in the negotiations.

Many issues need to be resolved, from how much autonomy the Serbian minority will receive in Kosovo to what the role of the international community will be after independence. A deal will not come without conditions for Pristina, says Anderson.

"Certainly, the international community wants to keep a lot of strings attached to any prospective Kosovo independence," Anderson says. "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 [the UN’s Kosovo administration] 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 Kosovo’s new status.

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.