A Kosovo Serb politician who has defied Belgrade's policy on Kosovo was handed the reins of a new ministry on Monday, to repatriate thousands of Serb refugees to the U.N. protectorate.
Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj asked Slavisa Petkovic to head the newly-created Ministry for Returns, a post reserved for the Serb minority.
Petkovic does not have the backing of the Serb leaders in Belgrade, but his appointment will be hailed by Western powers as concrete progress and a blow to Belgrade obstructionism.
He becomes the first Serb to join the Albanian-dominated government led by Haradinaj, a former guerrilla commander Serbia says is a war criminal.
"Serbs shouldn't return to collective centres, but directly to their homes," said Petkovic. "It means there will be Serbs in Pristina, Prizren, and all other towns where they lived before."
The United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, is expected to confirm his appointment on Wednesday.
Petkovic, 38, ignored a Serb boycott of Kosovo's October general election and his party took two of the 10 seats reserved for the minority in the province's 120-seat parliament.
Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since three months of NATO bombing in 1999 expelled Serb forces to end what the West said was their ruthless disregard for civilian life in fighting to crush an Albanian guerrilla insurgency.
An estimated 180,000 Serbs and other minorities fled after the war fearing reprisals. Some 100,000 remain, mostly in isolated enclaves patrolled by 18,000 NATO-led peacekeepers.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has taken a tougher line on Kosovo since Albanian riots in March 2004 against minorities. He led calls for Serbs to boycott the October vote and he opposes Serb participation in Kosovo's institutions.
Analysts say Belgrade wants to obstruct progress on U.N. set standards of democracy and minority rights in order to delay negotiations due this year on whether Kosovo gets the independence its 90-percent Albanian majority demands.
Petkovic's emergence as a willing Serb interlocutor for the West could undermine Belgrade's claim to be the only real representative of Kosovo's Serb minority.
"Belgrade's stance toward the (Serb) community pre-empts local political leadership," the International Crisis Group, an influential think-tank, said in a report. "The boycott of the October elections has kept most of the bargaining power in Belgrade should a final status process begin in 2005."
Marko Jaksic, a Kosovo Serb hardliner and Kostunica ally, said of the appointment: "This shows clearly the U.N. mission has no qualms in opposing democracy, law and order and peace."