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Serbia-Montenegro: Just Days Before Scheduled Start, Belgrade-Pristina Talks Still In Confusion

The first direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina since the 1999 conflict in Kosovo are scheduled to open in Vienna on 14 October. The UN administrator of the province has issued formal invitations to officials from Serbia and Montenegro and to ethnic Albanian leaders, but the run-up to the meeting is proving rocky after the Kosovo parliament failed to endorse it.

Prague, 10 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With just four days to go, it is unclear who from Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders will travel to Vienna for talks with Belgrade.

Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi accepted chief UN administrator Harri Holkeri's invitation, but said he will not attend without a political consensus between Kosovo's three main parties and parliamentary approval.

Speaking before a key parliamentary session yesterday, Rexhepi said: "We are waiting for a parliamentary decision. Parliament has to make a final decision, and we will see after that."

The Kosovar assembly, however, did not include a discussion of the talks on its agenda yesterday. Deputies said the talks with Belgrade are not a priority for Kosovo.

President Ibrahim Rugova -- also invited to Vienna -- indicated he is willing to attend, and parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci said he will go to Vienna, even if he is the only one to do so.

After hours of talks with Kosovar leaders, Holkeri yesterday warned that time is running out. But he did not set a deadline for ethnic Albanian leaders to confirm their attendance, suggesting that discussions will continue. "Well, time is running, and we have to make our preparation," he said. "But the door is open."

Holkeri insists the talks -- to which ethnic Albanian leaders initially agreed -- are in the best interests of Kosovo. In a televised address earlier this week, he urged Kosovar leaders to participate in the talks, "to demonstrate to the world the maturity" of their institutions.

The talks in Vienna will focus on improving the daily lives of people and will not broach the issue of Kosovo's final status.

Serbs and ethnic Albanians are as divided as ever on the future of the UN-administered province, with the Serbs saying Kosovo remains part of their territory and ethnic Albanians insisting they will settle for nothing less than independence.

Agreeing on issues such as energy, transportation, and especially the fate of missing persons and the return of Serbian refugees -- all of which are on the agenda of the upcoming talks -- would require give-and-take, which both sides are reluctant to engage in. For Kosovar leaders, such moves are particularly risky as they might appear to be compromising on the ultimate goal of independence.

Alex Anderson is the Pristina coordinator for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank. He told RFE/RL: "As far as the Kosovo Albanian side is concerned, we have seen over the last few weeks chopping and changing more or less every day. There seems to be an anxiousness on the part of politicians to avoid the responsibility for going to the talks. On the other hand, we see with the Serbian side a process, even over the last few days, where more and more politicians seem to want to be associated with the talks process in Vienna next week."

Holkeri yesterday said he plans to extend the powers of Kosovar institutions in the fields of energy and international cooperation that until now were held by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Ethnic Albanian leaders had insisted that UNMIK transfer more powers to local authorities before talks with Belgrade could start so that they would be on a more equal footing with Serbian officials.

Serbian leaders have said they will attend the Vienna meeting, but here, as well, some questions remain. It is still unclear whether it is the union state of Serbia and Montenegro that will be represented, or simply its bigger partner Serbia.

Another point to be worked out, Anderson said, is the role of UNMIK. Some reports say Holkeri will lead the Kosovo delegation, while others say he will preside over the talks as a whole. UN officials have said the Vienna meeting is largely symbolic and that concrete results are expected at subsequent meetings of working commissions in Belgrade or Pristina.

Anderson said success will depend on Kosovar Albanians seizing the initiative. "It very much depends on the extent to which the Kosovar institutions and the Kosovar parties are willing to seize the initiative in a constructive way," he said. "What I think they have failed to do over the past four years is to really build a constructive platform to achieve the goal that they all share, which is of Kosovar independence. What they appear to be doing now is fearing the possible consequences of dialogue rather than seeing the possible opportunities of dialogue."

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana are also invited to the Vienna meeting. So are representatives from the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and Russia -- the members of the Contact Group that worked to end the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

A UNMIK official told RFE/RL, however, that if the current uncertainty persists, international officials might find it impossible to fit the meeting into their schedules at short notice.

The talks will not deal with Kosovo's final status, but international officials have said they could pave the way for resolving that issue. Anderson said that process is unlikely to start soon.

Informally, he said, "the year 2005 is being looked at because 2004 is likely to be dominated by elections both in Kosovo and in Serbia, or Serbia and Montenegro. We are already at a stage where on both sides politicians seem to be politicizing Kosovo, looking towards their internal electorates in a rather exaggerated way. And so I think it is unrealistic to expect a constructive dialogue on final status before 2005."

Kosovo's final status will eventually be decided by the UN Security Council.

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