By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2005
BELGRADE The United Nations moved closer to starting talks on the future of Kosovo, perhaps the most intractable issue remaining from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, with a visit by the its chief negotiator to the region this week.
Martti Ahtissari, formerly president of Finland and now the UN envoy to the region, met with Albanian and Serbian leaders of Kosovo on Tuesday and Wednesday in a round of shuttle diplomacy before possible face-to-face negotiations between the two sides early next year. From Pristina, in Kosovo, he was expected to travel to Belgrade on Thursday for meetings with senior government officials and then to Macedonia and Albania.
His tour is to pave the way for negotiations intended to end six years of legal limbo. Uncertainty during that period over the province's future has frustrated its population and jeopardized the region's chances of establishing long-term stability.
Kosovo has been under the control of a UN interim administration since it was wrested from Serbia's control in June 1999 after a 78-day bombing campaign led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO began the air campaign after widespread atrocities against the region's majority Albanian population.
Since then the United Nations has established a regional government with substantial local control. But the UN mission's role in the province is seen by international officials as increasingly untenable because of the failure to resolve the area's future status.
Officially, Kosovo remains a part of Serbia, contrary to the wishes of ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province's population, an estimated two million people.
The ethnic Albanians want independence. Last year 50,000 of them rioted in the region, and 19 people were killed.
The difficulty of Ahtissari's task was underlined just before his visit as Serb and Albanian political leaders reiterated 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 Ahtissari that they would accept nothing 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 Ahtissari. "The time has come to wrap up this business."
While the UN officials say the final agreement will be the result of negotiation, senior Western diplomats across the region concede it will be difficult to defy the demands of Kosovo's Albanian population for independence, despite Albanians' failure to prevent attacks on minorities. Forcing Kosovo to remain within Serbia would run the risk of provoking an Albanian insurgency, they said.
But while these fears are foremost in the minds of many Western officials, some politicians in the region warn that insufficient consideration is being given to what effect 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 chairman 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."