By Judy Dempsey International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2006
VIENNA Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators on Monday sat down together for the first time in an effort to resolve the status of Kosovo, one of the last but most difficult disputes left over from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The wrangling over the province, which is a part of Serbia and Montenegro and is under a UN protectorate, has prevented the region from moving toward long-term stability.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of the province's two million people, expect they will be granted independence, while Serbian leaders say they are prepared to give the province a wide degree of autonomy but not independence.
The closed-door "final status talks," which opened in the Kinsky Palace in Vienna under the chairmanship of a United Nations' special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, once a president of Finland, could last until the end of the year, diplomats said.
The discussions had been due to start in January but were postponed after the death of the Kosovo president, Ibrahim Rugova, a champion of independence.
Depending on how the talks go, they could bring this part of the western Balkans closer to Europe or leave it simmering in resentment that could feed another wave of radical nationalism.
Serbian politicians still regard Kosovo, a small southern province that shares a border with Albania, as the cradle of Serbian culture and history stretching back centuries.
The leader of the Serbian delegation, Slobodan Samardzic, "does not expect much" from the meeting in Vienna. The goal, he said, is "autonomy for Serbs in Kosovo."
In contrast, Lutfi Haziri, head of Kosovo's delegation, was upbeat on Monday. "We hope that the status talks will finish soon and we have come well prepared," he said on arrival. "Independence is coming."
The fate of Kosovo has hung in the balance since Yugoslavia collapsed into civil war in the early 1990s.
First Slovenia and Croatia fought their way to independence, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Kosovo conflict erupted in 1999. Europe's worst conflagration since the end of World War II, these wars exposed the enormous challenges arising from the end of the Cold War in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall was broken down by peaceful demonstrators.
The Kosovo war ended with a NATO bombing campaign that forced Slobodan Milosevic, then the Yugoslav leader who is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes committed during the Bosnia conflict, to withdraw Serbian troops and turn the province over to the United Nations.
The 80,000 ethnic Serbs who remain in Kosovo live in isolated enclaves that are protected by NATO peacekeepers. UN officials have estimated that more than 200,000 people, mainly Serbs, have fled the region since they established the special administration in June 1999, largely for fear of reprisals by ethnic Albanian extremists.
Hua Jiang, Ahtisaari's spokeswoman, said any settlement was "about minority rights and safety." She said the entire process was "about setting up a multi- ethnic society in Kosovo."
But the previous attempt by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union to establish a multiethnic society, in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, has not been an inspiring example.
Despite international pressure, the three communities in Bosnia have been reluctant to cooperate on security, defense, judicial or interior affairs, said diplomats in the federation.
Jiang said the first, two-day round of talks over Kosovo would deal with government changes aimed at enhancing the rights of Serbs and other minorities, since "both sides have a willingness to tackle it."
Diplomats from the countries known as the Contact Group - the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia - have already set out guidelines for Kosovo's future.
Those rules say the province cannot return to its previous status under direct Serbian rule; it cannot be partitioned along ethnic lines or be joined to another country in the region, such as Albania; and any agreement should be acceptable to the province's ethnic Albanian majority.
Washington has been pressing for talks on the final status of Kosovo for the last year, while the Europe Union was reluctant to begin, saying the time was not ripe.
The United States would like to see the United Nations hand over responsibility for the former Yugoslavia to the European Union and phase out the costly protectorates in both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nicholas Burns, deputy U.S. secretary of state of state for European affairs, has played a major role in pushing that agenda.