Mon Apr 3, 2006 03:03 PM ET
By Matthew Robinson
VIENNA (Reuters) - Negotiations on the future of Kosovo appeared to founder on Monday as United Nations' mediators struggled to overcome Serb demands for autonomy within the majority Albanian territory.
Deputy U.N. envoy Albert Rohan, who chaired the third meeting of Serbs and Kosovo Albanians in Vienna, said "considerable differences" remained between their basic concepts of how to give minority Serbs greater say in the running of their own affairs -- a key element of any deal on status.
Kosovo Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province's 2 million people, are under pressure to give the diminishing Serb minority more local powers as part of a deal on "final status."
Diplomats say independence is almost inevitable, seven years since NATO drove out Serb forces and the U.N. took control.
But Serbia is refusing to give up on the creation of a Serb "entity" within Kosovo, something Rohan explicitly ruled out during a visit to the province last week.
He told reporters on Monday the Serb concept remained "one of a large degree of autonomy for Kosovo Serb majority municipalities with the limited role of central authorities."
The West fears this is code for partition, a taboo concept that rings of the dysfunctional ethnic carve-up seen in Bosnia.
U.N. mediators led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari are advocating considerable local self-government, with the possibility of cooperation between Serb areas and Serbian authorities in Belgrade, as well as some financing from the Serbian budget.
"SO FAR APART"
Such steps are seen as key to convincing the 100,000 Serbs, ghettoized and targeted by sporadic violence since the war, that they have a future in Kosovo. The Albanians have agreed in principle, but are trying to limit Belgrade's future influence.
"We are so far apart," Kosovo deputy prime minister, Lutfi Haziri, told Reuters after the morning session. "The Serbs oppose the main principles of the document," he said, referring to the first U.N. proposal since talks began in February.
Serb negotiators defended the idea of an entity. "This is not internal-secession," said Slobodan Samaradzic. "It will ensure normal living conditions for Serbs in Kosovo."
The two sides meet again on May 4, when Ahtisaari's team hopes to close the discussion of decentralization.
Legally part of Serbia, Kosovo became a U.N. protectorate in 1999, when NATO bombed for 78 days to drive out Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.
Around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks. Those who stayed lead a grim existence on the margins of society, cocooned in a Belgrade-run world of "parallel structures" beyond Kosovo's Albanian-dominated institutions.
Ahtisaari has indicated the technical dialogue could be over within a couple of months, when talks will move on to the issue of statehood -- fiercely contested by Serbia but seemingly unavoidable given the messages coming from Western capitals.
He wants a deal on status within the year.