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Kosovo: Four Years After NATO Intervention, Albanians And Serbs Ready To Start Talking

Kosovar Albanian leaders have not held direct talks with their Serbian counterparts since 1999, when NATO established a de facto protectorate in the province. Now Pristina and Belgrade look set to reopen dialogue -- but talks will focus on practical matters and avoid the contentious issue of Kosovo's final status.

Prague, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The long-awaited talks between Pristina and Belgrade were expected to start later this week, with ethnic Albanian and Serbian leaders meeting on the sidelines of the European Union summit in Thessaloniki, Greece.

The 20-21 June summit, where the EU's commitments in the Balkans will be high on the agenda, was seen as an appropriate setting for Pristina and Belgrade to hold their first talks in four years.

But late last week, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said the talks would start soon -- but not in Thessaloniki. Zivkovic, speaking following a meeting in Belgrade with Michael Steiner, the head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, said the dialogue could open at the end of this month or in early July. The EU headquarters in Brussels was suggested as a possible venue.

Zivkovic said the Serbian government wanted to discuss "serious issues" with the Kosovo Albanians, "rather than just being photographed." For his part, Kosovo's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi predicted "a difficult process."

No agenda has yet been set for the talks. But the dialogue is expected to focus on practical issues of mutual concern. Belgrade is hoping to discuss the return of over 200,000 Serbs who fled the region fearing revenge attacks. It is unlikely, however, that the key Kosovo issue -- that of the province's final status -- will be brought to the table.

A UN Security Council resolution passed four years ago calls for Kosovo to gain substantial autonomy at a future date but has left its final status unresolved.

Kosovo's Albanians insist they will settle for nothing less than independence, while Belgrade says Kosovo will remain a Serbian province. Recently, however, there have been voices of dissent on both sides of the issue.

Naim Jerliu, vice president of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), told RFE/RL the goal of ethnic Albanians is an independent Kosovo. "The position of Kosovo institutions and Kosovo Albanian political parties on final status is the position of [needing to] recognize the will of the people of Kosovo. And it is well-known that the will of the Kosovo people is for an independent and democratic Kosovo. So any possible solution that we see through the mediation which will be led by the United States and the European Union, we see in that direction," Jerilu said.

There seems to be no consensus, however, on how to achieve that goal. Hashim Thaci, the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, earlier this year proposed setting a moratorium on all discussions of final status until 2005. But the idea was rejected by the LDK and Kosovo's third-biggest Albanian party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo.

The Serbian side also lacks a unified strategy. Nebojsa Covic, the Serbian deputy prime minister in charge of Kosovo, acknowledges that Belgrade can do little to influence the development of the province. But he said Serbia will not give up Kosovo without a fight.

"I think [when the agreement on Kosovo was reached] some spoke of a victory. If that is victory, I don't know what defeat would be like. We as politicians should not be giving anyone false hopes, but that does not mean we will not fight to restore the right of the Serbian republic over Kosovo and Metohija as well as to restore and secure the individual and collective rights of the Serbian community and all other citizens. But we must not delude ourselves," Covic said.

In more conciliatory remarks, Prime Minister Zivkovic has suggested he favors a dialogue. In an interview with the "Glas javnosti" daily earlier this month, Zivkovic said there are two ways of solving the problem: "To wage war or talk." He added: "Someone has tried the former and we saw the outcome. I keep insisting on solving the problem through negotiations." Zivkovic also acknowledges that Serbia cannot become fully democratic and stable as long as Kosovo's status remains unresolved.

The international community insists that before there can be any talk on Kosovo's final status, a set of standards for the development of local institutions and democracy has to be achieved.

Simon Haselock, the head of UNMIK's press and information division, told RFE/RL: "The question is that before anybody can talk about what that status may be, there needs to be an organism which can carry that status. And that means what [UN Security Council Resolution] 1244 requires as a prequel, if you like, to the status discussions, and that prequel is basically establishing substantial autonomy and government. That means that the institutions that we have established have to function, they have to function in a way that they can carry autonomy or anything else they have to deliver."

Haselock said the EU, which has made what he described as "huge investments and commitments" in the region, recognizes that stability in the Balkans is inextricably linked to stability in Kosovo.

"Europeans are fully committed and understand they have to come to some resolution, that this issue [of Kosovo's status] can't be left forever. And of course at some stage, when the conditions are in place, the status will be discussed. The question, of course, is how fast can we arrive at that time," Haselock said.

Some analysts say there are signs that time may come sooner than initially thought. Vetton Surroi, the editor in chief of Kosovo's biggest daily, "Koha Dittore," told RFE/RL's South Slavic And Albanian Languages Service that people in Kosovo have reached a phase of disillusionment which, if the current situation continues, could turn to fear for the future. Surroi said that any talks between Pristina and Belgrade, regardless of what issues they start with, will very soon have to turn to the issue of Kosovo's status.

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)