BRUSSELS, April 20 (Reuters) - The European Union urged Kosovo's ethnic Albanian president, Ibrahim Rugova, on Wednesday to start a dialogue with Serbia about the future of his United Nations-run province.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the move would help possible international negotiations later this year on the status of Kosovo, which has been a U.N. protectorate since NATO warplanes drove Serbian forces out in 1999.
Serbia's pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, has signalled he is ready to meet Rugova on the future of the province, where 90 percent of the population are ethnic Albanian, but Kosovo's leader has ruled out direct talks in his drive for independence.
"It is very important to start a constructive dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina (Kosovo's capital)," Rehn told a news conference, unveiling a paper by the executive European Commission's on assistance to Kosovo.
"I have noted positive developments in this regard - the willingness to stretch the hand by President Tadic, and I encourage President Rugova to take this seriously and proceed to have a constructive dialogue," he said.
Rugova led a campaign of passive resistance against Serb domination in the 1990s.
Brutal Serbian tactics to put down an ethnic Albanian insurgency and accusations of "ethnic cleansing" eventually provided the grounds for a 1999 NATO air war against Belgrade and its forces in Kosovo.
Rehn said the Commission was ready to help Kosovo's gradual integration with the rest of Europe, including with more financial aid, if the province's leaders were serious about a peaceful settlement of the conflict and political reforms.
"The Commission will ... help Kosovo to make progress towards its European aspirations, provided its political leaders demonstrate a clear commitment to democratic principles, human rights, rule of law and economic reform," he said.
The EU has spent 1.6 billion euros since 1999 on reconstruction, humanitarian aid and economic assistance to Kosovo, but Rehn acknowledged the international community had not yet succeeded in fostering a viable economy there.
The Commission recommended last week opening talks with Serbia and Montenegro on a first association agreement with the EU that could eventually lead to the former Yugoslav republic's entry to the bloc.
Under its well-tested policies, the EU makes democratic, human rights and free market reforms in European countries a condition for eventual membership prospects.
"Ultimately, Kosovo's future is in the hand of its people," Rehn said.