By NICHOLAS WOOD
BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro, Nov. 23 - The United Nations took a step closer to starting talks on the future of Kosovo, perhaps the most intractable issue remaining from the Balkan wars of the 1990's, with a visit by its chief negotiator to the region this week.
The envoy, Martti Ahtissari, a former president of Finland and recently appointed as the United Nations' negotiator, met Tuesday and Wednesday with the leaders of Kosovo's two factions, ethnic Albanians and Serbs, in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to prepare for possible face-to-face negotiations between the sides early next year.
His tour paves the way for negotiations that are expected to end six years of legal limbo for Kosovo, during which uncertainty over that Serbian province's future has frustrated both its populations and the threatened the chances for long-term stability in the region.
Kosovo has been under the control of a United Nations interim administration since it was wrested from Serbia's control in June 1999 after a 78-day NATO-led bombing campaign. The air campaign came after Serbia sent troops into the province against an ethnic Albanian rebel movement, and evidence emerged of widespread atrocities by the troops against the Albanian majority.
Since then the United Nations has established a regional government with substantial local control. But the mission's role in the province is seen by international officials as increasingly untenable because of the failure to resolve its future status.
Officially Kosovo remains a part of Serbia, contrary to the wishes of the Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the estimated two million people and who want independence. Last year 50,000 ethnic Albanians rioted in the region, forcing 4,000 Serbs and others to flee their homes and killing 19 people.
The difficulty of Mr. Ahtissari's task was underlined just before his visit as Serbian and Albanian political leaders reiterated their diametrically opposing views. On Monday, Serbia's Parliament passed a resolution agreeing to the negotiation process, but rejecting any solution that would remove Kosovo from Serbia. On Tuesday, Kosovo's Albanian leaders told Mr. Ahtissari that they would not accept anything less than independence.
"I insist on the direct recognition of Kosovo's independence that will calm down the region," Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, said after meeting in his home in Pristina with Mr. Ahtissari. "The time has come to wrap up this business."
Much of the negotiations are expected to focus on how Kosovo's Serbian population, which numbers up to 130,000, can best be protected and have a degree of autonomy from Albanian-dominated institutions.
While the United Nations officials say the final agreement will be the result of negotiation, senior Western diplomats across the region concede it will be difficult to defy Kosovo Albanian demands for independence, despite their failure to prevent attacks on minorities. Forcing Kosovo to remain within Serbia would run the risk of provoking an Albanian insurgency and destabilizing the region, they said.
But some politicians warn that insufficient consideration is being given to what impact Kosovo's independence would have on Serbia.
"Everyone seems to be concerned about the future status of Kosovo; that it will be more or less independent, conditional independence or independence with international supervision," Dimitrij Rupel, Slovenia's foreign minister and current chairman in the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a recent interview. "But they haven't thought thoroughly about what might happen in Serbia."
The negotiations come at difficult time for Serbia. Next year Montenegro is expected to hold a referendum that could also lead to it breaking away from Serbia and becoming an independent state.
Serbia's democratic parties also remain weak, despite five years of democratic government since the fall of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, Mr. Rupel said.
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's coalition government has introduced difficult economic and political changes that have yet to bear fruit. Public enterprises are being restructured with job losses, social security payments have been scaled back, and public expenditures have been cut to ensure economic stability.
This environment, especially if Kosovo and Montenegro were to become independent, could be exploited by the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, which holds the largest number of seats in Parliament, said Vuk Jeremic, the foreign affairs adviser to the reformist president, Boris Tadic.
"We may experience a nationalist wave," Mr. Jeremic said in a telephone interview. "The Radicals will say, what have five years of democracy brought us? The improvements may not be very obvious at this stage." If Kosovo were lost, he said, "I think there will be little we can use to contain them."
Mr. Rupel said he had urged other European foreign ministers at a recent meeting in Brussels to consider how Serbia might be compensated for any possible losses in Kosovo. "I think part of the solution will be finding something attractive for the Serbs," he said. Asked what the response of his counterparts had been to his proposal he said, "They didn't have an answer."
Membership in the European Union some time in the future "isn't really a carrot," he said. Aid or compensation, financial or political would have to be sufficient to strengthen democratic forces enough to make people overlook the loss of Kosovo.
Mr. Jeremic said the whole region needed an additional aid package, to ensure stability after a decision on Kosovo. "There has to be a new initiative for the Balkans within the European Union," he said.
But he emphasized that Serbia could not be bought off on Kosovo. "No matter how high a price you pay for Kosovo, it would still be a sellout," he said. "The compensation has to be found within Kosovo. The compensation will have to be at the expense of Albanians' maximalist platform."