By WARREN HOGE
Published: October 7, 2005
UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 7 - Secretary General Kofi Annan said today that he would recommend that talks begin soon on the future status of Kosovo, with independence for the Balkan province an option.
"Naturally, I cannot say now what the result will be," Mr. Annan said, speaking to reporters in Bern, Switzerland.
"The question of independence is on the table; the question of autonomy is on the table," he said. "We will discuss all that with Belgrade, with Pristina."
Mr. Annan said he was acting after receiving a report three days ago in New York from his special envoy to Kosovo, the Norwegian diplomat, Kai Eide, on the province's progress in meetings standards of democracy and minority rights.
The secretary general said he would be naming "in a very short time" a new person to lead the coming talks. "What's important," he said, "is that talks begin soon."
Mr. Annan said he was making his recommendation today to the 15-member Security Council. The council is scheduled to take up the question of Kosovo on Oct. 24, and diplomats predicted that the talks on the status of the province would begin before the end of the year.
Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's two million people, hope that the discussions will provide the final step toward seceding from Serbia-Montenegro, the union that joined the remaining lands of the former Yugoslavia.
Serbia is adamantly opposed to such an outcome. Half of Kosovo's 100,000 Serbs live in NATO-protected enclaves, and Serbian officials have argued that this is evidence of insufficient advances in minority rights.
They also point to mass rioting in March 2004, when 50,000 ethnic Albanians took part in a three-day wave of attacks on Serbs and other minorities, resulting in 19 deaths and 4,000 people being driven from their homes.
In Washington, the under secretary of state for political affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, said the United States "fully supports" Mr. Annan's decision and would be "centrally involved" in the negotiations. He said that he was about to go to the region and that the United States would assign an American envoy to follow the discussions and help the two sides resolve the status of the province.
Noting that the present political arrangement was "unsustainable," Mr. Burns said: "The people of the region have a right to know that they have a future and that they can control that future. And whether or not that future is of continued association with Serbia-Montenegro, or the future is of independence, that is not a decision for the United Nations or the United States or any of the European countries to make. That is a decision for the people to make, but they must have a negotiating framework."
Mr. Eide's report was expected to focus on such standards as whether steps had been taken to set up functioning democratic institutions, to protect minority rights, promote economic development, insure the rule of law, provide freedom of movement and guarantee property rights.
Kosovo's United Nations governor, Soren Jessen-Petersen of Denmark, has indicated that negotiations would be conducted on a shuttle basis between Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and protected by NATO peacekeepers since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign to halt Serb repression of the ethnic Albanians following an uprising by Albanian guerrillas.
Although the United Nations administration has produced physical evidence of stability in the province with new houses, ministries, local government offices, courts and police services, the region still remains the poorest in the Balkans, with ethnic enmity running deep.
Estimates of unemployment range from 30 percent to 70 percent, the regional government is close to bankruptcy and the United Nations expects the economy to shrink 2 percent this year.