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Kosovo: Talks Between Belgrade, Pristina Come Together At Last Moment In Vienna

Serbian and Kosovar Albanian leaders are meeting today in Vienna for the first time since the 1999 Kosovo war. The United Nations administration in Kosovo called for the meeting as a largely symbolic first step toward eventual reconciliation. RFE/RL reports that the biggest success to come out of the meeting is the meeting itself, and even that success has been diluted by controversy.

Prague, 14 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At the last minute, it looked as though a long-pending meeting between Kosovar Albanian and Serbian leaders -- to set the stage for gradual reconciliation between the former enemies -- would not occur.

But an 11th-hour telephone blitz yesterday by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, helped to pull the meeting back together. Talks opened as scheduled early today in Vienna, although not at the level of representation originally intended.

Kosovo's chief UN administrator, Harri Holkeri, called for the talks and invited Kosovo's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, among others, to attend. Rexhepi conditioned his acceptance on approval of the talks by Kosovo's parliament, which never addressed the topic. Rexhepi announced last weekend that he would not attend, saying that the time is not right. Instead, President Ibrahim Rugova said he would lead the Kosovar delegation.

Subsequently, word came from Serbia that it also would not field a delegation. That's when Solana and other EU officials went to work.

The meeting did come together today, with Serbia's delegation headed by Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic and Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, who is in charge of Kosovo affairs. Along with Rugova, Kosovar parliament speaker Nejad Daci led the Kosovar delegation.

In Vienna, in an interview with the Kosovo subunit of RFE/RL's South Slavic and albanian Languages Service, EU spokeswoman Kristin Galjak put the best face possible on the makeup of the participants. "Yes, it is true, the delegations are not at [their] fullest. We have to admit that. We regret it," she said. "But undoubtedly, the event today is of utmost importance, and we consider that it is a major step forward. The European Union is going to support fully this engagement."

Galjak said the EU believes Kosovo, as an entity, is looking to the West, to the European Union, and that the participation of its leaders -- even without Prime Minister Rexhepi -- is a breakthrough. "Well, the first reaction is that it is extremely important that after so many years of conflict, of mistrust, today for the first time we have representatives -- the leaders of Kosovo and the leaders of Serbia together -- talking about the future," Galjak said.

The international community officially recognizes Kosovo as a province of Yugoslavia. But since NATO bombing drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo in 1999 to halt a campaign of ethnic cleansing, ethnic Albanians, by far the majority ethnic group there, have been in control. Serbia has vowed that Albania must remain part of Serbia. Kosovar Albanians say they are adamant in seeking independence.

It is this impasse that UN and EU leaders hope to bridge. But the issue of provincial status versus independence was never intended to be on today's agenda.

Holkeri designed the talks to get the two sides discussing matters on which small agreements might be possible -- such as cooperation on energy and transportation, and even on determining the fate of people still listed as missing four years after the war.

The EU's Solana has said it is the responsibility of political leaders to engage with each other, even on preliminary questions. In her interview with RFE/RL, Galjak expanded on the point. She said this was "the only way to move forward. It is the only way to move to a situation of trust, to move to a situation of resolving practical issues, to move to a situation that facilitates -- later on, in the future -- talks about the final status."

Alex Anderson, coordinator in Pristina for the Brussels-based nongovernmental International Crisis Group, said last week he perceives fear among Kosovar Albanian leaders of the possible consequences of dialogue, rather than a perception of the possible opportunities.

Kosovar Prime Minister Rexhepi said on 12 October that he is willing to meet with "our neighbor Serbia, as well as all other neighbors of Kosovo." But, he said, the Kosovar Albanians will choose their own time and topics, not have them imposed by the UN administration.

That phrase -- "our neighbor Serbia" -- goes to the heart of the larger issues still to be addressed.