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Kosovo: EU Plays For Time As Thaci Signals Independence 'Very Soon'

Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (left) with Javier Solana in Brussels on January 24 (epa) Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has said sovereignty for the UN-administered province in Serbia is now only "an issue of days" in an apparent effort to keep up pressure on EU members and the United States to back a unilateral declaration of independence.

EU officials, who are in negotiation with leaders of the 90 percent ethnic-Albanian province, have signaled that any declaration should wait until after Serbia's presidential runoff next month to avoid fueling nationalism and anti-Western sentiment in Belgrade.

"Kosovo is ready [already] today for independence," Thaci said on January 24. "There are some procedures that we need to respect and some consultations that we need to respect, too, but Kosovo is ready, is united, and I think the date, we will proclaim in Pristina very soon.''

Thaci was speaking after a meeting with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana to discuss where both sides stand as Pristina tries to move quickly toward its independence declaration.

Neither party would reveal what was discussed. Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas noted that "the greatest fear for the EU is that of a leak of a date for Kosovo's independence, and that is due to the sensitivity of the upcoming runoff election on February 3 in Serbia."

Lobjakas said delegates of smaller EU member states say that "little or nothing is being said to them about the meetings, though we can assume that the larger capitals in Europe are being coordinated with."

Lobjakas says Brussels' desire to keep the talks with Kosovar leaders from fanning tensions in Serbia has even been expressed in cautions to the press corps that covers EU issues.

European Commission spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy said on January 24 that "we are in a very sensitive political context in which it is better to resort to diplomatic means than to public statements."

Brussels -- which along with Washington backs Kosovo's independence -- is worried that the Serbian runoff might lead Belgrade away from a pro-EU path.

In the first round of the presidential election on January 20, former Slobodan Milosevic ally and Serbian Radical Party candidate Tomislav Nikolic took almost 40 percent of the vote. Nikolic is standing in as the Radicals' head while the party's spiritual leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial in the The Hague for alleged crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Nikolic is challenging incumbent Boris Tadic, who favors closer ties with the European Union but won only 35 percent of the first-round vote.

The EU's Solana has said repeatedly that he hopes Serbian voters will choose closer ties to Europe, but the presidential contest and other recent events have highlighted the possibility that Serbia might turn eastward instead.

Belgrade's closest ally, Moscow, today underlined its desire for deeper ties by signing a major energy deal with Serbia. Under the deal signed at the Kremlin, Serbia agreed to sell a controlling stake in its oil monopoly NIS to Russia's Gazprom. State-controlled Gazprom is preparing to build a pipeline in southern Serbia and an underground gas-storage facility in northern Vojvodina as part of Moscow's planned new energy route to the EU's southeastern states.

The topic of Serbian-Russian solidarity is conspicuous as both the ruling and leading opposition parties oppose Kosovo's effort to break away. Moscow instead backs Belgrade's offer of autonomy for the province.

RFE/RL correspondent Lobjakas said the bets at EU headquarters are that a declaration of independence is unlikely to come before February 3 but likely to happen before the end of March.

He said that deadline is suggested by the speed with which Brussels feels it must prepare for dispatching a mission of 2,000 judicial and law-enforcement advisers to Kosovo. The mission is to assure that the province can function as an independent state.

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