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Serbia: After Many Delays, Belgrade-Pristina Talks On Kosovo Look Set To Start

International officials appear confident that a long-awaited direct dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina will begin within weeks. The talks will focus on technical issues and not on the final status of the UN-administered province. Diplomats from the six-nation Contact Group are meeting today and tomorrow in New York to discuss a plan for the talks, for which analysts say both sides are ill-prepared.

Prague, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian and Kosovar leaders have not had direct contact since the end of NATO's air campaign in 1999 to end a crackdown by Serbian security forces against the province's majority ethnic Albanians.

The international community has been pushing for talks, and officials now say that -- after a number of false starts -- they are set to open soon. The talks between Serbian and Kosovar representatives are expected to focus on cooperation in the energy and communications fields, as well as on the fate of missing persons and the return of Serbian refugees.

The talks will not touch on the province's final status, which the international community insists will be solved by the UN Security Council, not by Belgrade or Pristina.

Over the weekend, Harri Holkeri, Kosovo's UN administrator, sounded upbeat, saying the dialogue could start "within weeks." Holkeri is to brief representatives of the Contact Group nations -- the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Germany -- on the two sides' preparedness. A possible date and venue for the talks is expected to be announced following the meeting.

The start of talks had been expected earlier this year, but they have been constantly postponed amid apprehension on both sides about the direction the talks might take.

Serbian politicians over the weekend reiterated their previous public assurances that Belgrade wants to see talks as soon as possible. Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic is expected to lead the Serbian delegation. "[Holkeri] will present his views to the Contact Group, and I expect that the Contact Group will support what must happen, and that is a dialogue. If people do not talk to each other, if they do not have a dialogue, problems cannot be solved. We have seen what happens when people do not talk, when there is no dialogue," Covic said.

Starting such talks is in Serbia's interest, since progress toward eventual European Union membership is seen as impossible without resolving the Kosovo issue.

Serbian politicians insist that emotionally laden issues -- such as security for the province's minority Serbs and the return of Serbian refugees -- should have priority, with other problems being dealt with farther down the line.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic -- meeting children from the Kosovar village of Gorazdevac over the weekend -- reiterated that security in Kosovo is a priority for his government. "It is not going to be easy," he said. "It is not going to be simple. I cannot tell you that it is going to be tomorrow, or in seven days, in 10 days or in a month. Our political activities will have different goals, but the most important goal will be [to guarantee] that children in Kosovo, regardless of their ethnicity [can] play freely, study freely, bathe freely in your rivers, that you can freely come to Belgrade but can also freely return to your Gorazdevac." In Gorazdevac last month, unknown assailants fired on a group of Serbian children bathing in a river, killing two and wounding seven.

Recent moves by Belgrade, however, hardly seem conducive to dialogue. In a declaration last month, the Serbian parliament declared Kosovo an indisputable part of Serbia, despite its UN administration -- a statement that drew the ire of politicians in Pristina bent on Kosovo's eventual independence.

Kosovar leaders also are wary that direct talks might make it easier for Serbia to dictate its own terms. Esat Stavileci, a member of the Pristina Academy of Sciences, explained to RFE/RL why he believes neither side is ready for talks: "Despite the fact that, formally, both sides have declared that they are for talks, I believe that in reality these talks will take place because the international community is pushing both sides. That is especially true for Kosova, because the talks will be taking place at the same time when [the union state of] Serbia and Montenegro has taken several steps which EU officials say will have no impact on the future status of Kosova but which, in fact, mean that [Serbia and Montenegro] wants to secure a better position at the start of talks."

Enver Hasani, a professor of international law at Pristina University, said the lead-up to the talks is further complicated by the lack of consensus among Kosovar politicians. "I think that Kosovar institutions, the Kosovar side, is not ready for a dialogue, but that does not mean they are not going to take part," Hasani said. "This is something we have yet to see. But they are not ready as far as the Kosovar political life is concerned, and that became obvious in the past few days when the Kosova Assembly could not reach a consensus on the platform, the representation and the procedures for a dialogue with the Serbs and with Serbia."

Last week (18 September), the Kosovo Assembly said dialogue with Belgrade is not a priority and that problems should be solved inside the province.

There are a number of practical issues related to the planned talks that have not yet been agreed, including at what level they will take place, who will mediate and who will guarantee any possible agreements are implemented.

Kosovar leaders insist these issues must be resolved before talks begin. Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi recently said U.S. and European Union involvement is necessary if the talks are to succeed.

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