Wednesday June 8, 2005
The US is stepping up the pace for a decision on whether Kosovo should have independence, and believes full-scale negotiations should start this autumn, according to Nicholas Burns, the state department's third-ranking official.
The UN, which runs the province as a protectorate, has just appointed a special envoy to decide whether the Albanian majority has done enough to protect Serbs and other minority groups in Kosovo. Although the envoy was asked to report this summer, Mr Burns jumped the gun on the eve of a visit to Kosovo today.
"It's the view of my government that sufficient progress has been made to start final status talks. Kosovo was put on the backburner for years. We have to go back and complete the job," he said in London.
His remarks will not go down well in the Serbian capital, which Mr Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, will also visit.
The province is still formally part of Serbia but has been under UN rule since Nato intervened six years ago to drive out the Yugoslav army and Serb police and stop ethnic cleansing against Albanians. After Serb forces withdrew at least half the Serb population fled, and the rest now live in enclaves with little freedom of movement.
To try to make Albanian leaders promote fair law enforcement, human rights, and devolved local government, before talks on independence began, the UN adopted a policy of "standards before status". Mr Burns said the US no longer saw any value in delay. "It's now standards and status," he said.
His visit to the region, along with his firm comments, are widely seen as proof that the US has taken the lead again in forcing the pace in the Balkans. But the US official made clear he hoped the final status talks, which may last up to nine months, would be led by a European with an American deputy. Lord Ashdown, Bosnia's administrator, and the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari have been mentioned as candidates.
The US has been careful not to come out publicly in favour of any particular outcome for Kosovo - not even "conditional independence", a formula favoured by international thinktanks whereby foreign troops and human rights monitors would stay on for years even though the territory would be sovereign.
The Serb government has proposed a status described as "more than autonomy, less than independence", but has not given details. Western governments say there can be no return to Serb rule, as in 1998, nor can Belgrade have a veto.
Meanwhile, the former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, who resigned in March after being indicted by the Hague tribunal for crimes against humanity, allegedly before the 1999 war, has won bail to return to Pristina.