By Zoran Radosavljevic
LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Independence for Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo would open up a Pandora's box of separatism and lead to new ethnic conflicts in Europe, the foreign minister of Serbia-Montenegro said on Monday.
Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, when 78 days of NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against civilians while fighting an ethnic Albanian insurgency.
Last month, U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari started shuttle diplomacy aimed at reconciling two opposing visions -- the Albanian majority's demands for independence on the basis of self-determination, and Serbia's insistence on sovereignty.
Speaking on the sidelines of an OSCE ministerial meeting in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, Vuk Draskovic said that giving Kosovo independence could jeopardise stability in the Balkans.
Breaking up Serbia and changing its borders would breach international law, bolster the hopes of separatists elsewhere and fuel new wars.
"If the U.N. charter is crushed, it will become a cancer that spreads quickly," Draskovic said.
"What will then happen with the Turkish part of Cyprus, with the Albanians in Macedonia? Would Bosnia be able to survive? What about the Basques, Northern Ireland, Ossetia?".
Draskovic repeated that Serbia's best offer was broad autonomy that fell short of formal independence.
"Kosovo can have independent representation internationally, everywhere except at the United Nations and other organisations that stand for state sovereignty," he said.
"Serbia does not want to rule the Albanian majority in Kosovo. But majority rule cannot include intimidation and murder and destruction of churches."
Ethnic Albanians' impatience for independence has fuelled sporadic violence against minority Serbs. The 100,000 who stayed on in the province after about as many fled in 1999 say they face constant intimidation. Nineteen people died in March 2004 in riots that took Kosovo's 17,000 peacekeepers by surprise.
The talks on Kosovo's status are expected to wrap up by late 2006. Diplomats warn more violence should be expected in the province if negotiations stall, or a solution is seen as unfair.
Almost 70 percent of the province's 2 million people are unemployed and blame Kosovo's legal limbo for the lack of investment that would create jobs.
Draskovic said the international community should not grant Kosovo independence in order to placate extremists.
"(They) should say no to the ultimatums of Albanian extremists, that the remaining Serbs and the international military and police will be targets of terror if Kosovo is not given the status of an independent state," he said.
"Crime as the foundation of a state, a state as the reward for crime -- such an ultimatum is a blow to the moral and legal foundations of Europe."