NEW YORK (AP)--Serbia has no ambition to rule again over ethnic Albanians in its southern Kosovo province, but cannot just give up its historic territory that is still home to some 100,000 Serbs, Serbian President Boris Tadic said while on a diplomatic offensive ahead of looming talks on Kosovo's future.
Shuttling between a series of meetings in New York with U.S., European Union and Russian diplomats who will have a key role in the likely negotiations, Tadic says he is well aware of the mess left in the province by Serbia's former strongman, Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic's military crackdown on the ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999 led to NATO airstrikes to break the Serb assault. After thousands lost their lives - most of them Kosovar Albanians - the province became a U.N.-run protectorate whose final status may be resolved if a U.N. report, due in a few weeks, recommends that talks begin.
"Serbia does not want at all to arrange political relations among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo," Tadic said. "But we need to take care of Serbs in Kosovo," the dwindling community living in enclaves amid the occasionally hostile ethnic Albanian majority of 1.7 million.
Floating an idea of "decentralization" of Kosovo that would give the Serb enclaves some autonomy and the right to closer links with the government in Belgrade, Tadic declined to elaborate, saying only "a unique, flexible solution is needed, with considerable political creativity."
He also claimed that "Serbia has the international law on its side ... due to investments, remaining private property and Serb heritage in Kosovo, including ancient churches and monasteries."
"Serbia is a democratic country today," said Tadic, who was elected in 2004 amid Serbia's efforts to recover from the dark days under Milosevic.
Milosevic was ousted in 2000 and later extradited to the U.N. war crimes court in The Hague to answer for his role in several Balkan wars.
Milosevic's legacy, however, still haunts Serbia on many issues, including its unresolved relationship with tiny Montenegro.
The two republics used to be part of the former Yugoslavia and opted to stay together when four other republics broke away in the early 1990's. But the heavy-handed Milosevic alienated many in Montenegro, where an independence drive now persists even after Milosevic is gone.
An EU-brokered arrangement in 2003 established Serbia-Montenegro as a loose partnership of virtually sovereign republics that share only a small central administration to jointly run defense and foreign affairs.
But that deal may fall apart as early as next year as Montenegro's pro- independence leadership plans an independence referendum. This, in turn, complicates the Kosovo issue.
"There's this legal technicality," Tadic said with a sigh, explaining that a U.N. resolution, which introduced the international protectorate in Kosovo in 1999, refers to the province as geographically part of Serbia-Montenegro, not just Serbia. If Serbia and Montenegro split up, it would bolster the Kosovo Albanians' cause for their independence.
"A disintegration of Serbia-Montenegro could cause a chain reaction and destabilize a wider region," Tadic warned.
The real issue everyone should be focusing on instead, is economic development, the president said.
"Independence per se does not bring food on the table," he said, citing statistics that say that 63% of ethnic Albanians and 95% of Serbs in Kosovo are jobless.
It is particularly tough for Serbs and other non-Albanians, he added. "They lack freedom of movement, they can't even go look for jobs."
One thing the rival sides agree upon is their common desire to one day join the European Union. This would render the border issues irrelevant, but the feeble economies do not exactly propel either to membership in the bloc, Tadic acknowledged.
Serbia's particular problem is the outstanding Western demand for extradition of top war crimes suspect, Bosnian Serb wartime commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic.
"We are working very hard on that issue," Tadic said, only reiterating that Serbian authorities are trying but cannot find the fugitive.
Extradition of Mladic has emerged as the key obstacle for Serbia's membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace program as well as for closer ties with the EU.
-Edited by Paul Baylis
(END) Dow Jones Newswires