SKOPJE, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Serbia's disputed southern province of Kosovo is likely heading for a form of independence in U.N.-mediated negotiations about to begin, the prime minister of neighbouring Macedonia said on Friday.
In a fresh blow to Serbian hopes of keeping hold of the majority-Albanian province, Vlado Buckovski said he saw "conditional independence" as the likely outcome of talks. Talks are expected by the end of this month, but no date has been set.
"Kosovars want independence, not today but yesterday," he told Reuters.
"Belgrade has taken a major step forward by saying it is ready to negotiate on something more than autonomy but less than independence. Conditionally speaking, I translate that as conditional independence."
He said Albanians would have to earn it by guaranteeing the security and rights of the Serb minority.
"How will it be reached? If you ask me, through a very hard process, where some standards will have to be met."
Macedonia is the second former Yugoslav republic to predict independence for Kosovo, legally part of Serbia but run by the United Nations since the 1998-99 war.
ONE STEP FURTHER
Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek went one step further last month by advocating independence.
Belgrade promptly cancelled his scheduled visit the next day, in a sign of the diplomatic minefield awaiting U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who is expected to begin a first round of shuttle diplomacy before the end of November.
The United Nations took control of the province of 2 million people in 1999, after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of killing 10,000 Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.
Albanians account for 90 percent of the population and reject any return to Serb rule. Serbia, which considers Kosovo its religious heartland, says they can have full autonomy, but not their own state.
Serb leaders warn of a domino effect across the Balkans if Kosovo Albanians get independence, not least among Albanians in Macedonia and Serbs in Bosnia.
But Buckovski said any solution that respected Macedonia's borders could not destabilise the country.
"For Macedonia, a stable Kosovo definitively means the stabilisation of the region."
His comments were in line with Western diplomats, who say a form of independence under international supervision is the most realistic option on the table.
(Additional reporting by Kole Casule)