By NICHOLAS WOOD - NYT
PRISTINA, Kosovo, April 9 — Nearly two months after talks began in Vienna in February on this province's future, both sides appear to be maneuvering to change the facts on the ground to help decide whether Kosovo will become an independent state or remain a province within Serbia.
The issue has been regarded as the most intractable in the Balkans since NATO bombers forced Yugoslav security forces to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999, halting what international war crimes prosecutors say was a brutal campaign to force ethnic Albanians to flee.
Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo's population, estimated at more than two million, and want total independence. Serbs, in and out of Kosovo, want a return to rule from Belgrade. With little progress in the initial phase of talks, the possibility of an eventual solution imposed by the international community — in the Albanians' favor — grows more likely.
The United Nations has been administering Kosovo since the Yugoslav withdrawal, and as a result has been paying the salaries of many local officials. Meanwhile, Serbia has continued to finance many services in Serbian enclaves across the province, including paying those local officials a second salary. In early April, Serbia ordered all Serbian government employees in Kosovo to resign from any responsibilities with the United Nations or lose their Serbian paychecks.
Diplomats say that if Serbia were to find and arrest the leading war crimes suspect and former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, Ratko Mladic, its negotiating hand might be strengthened.
At the same time, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership is trying to make the case that an independent Kosovo would protect and nurture its minorities. Kosovo's new prime minister, Agim Ceku, took office in March, after his predecessor, Bajram Kosumi, was forced to step down under pressure from international officials who considered his efforts at reconciliation with Kosovo's Serbs ineffectual.
Mr. Ceku made his inaugural address to Kosovo's Albanian-dominated assembly partly in Serbian, to the astonishment of several members of Parliament.
"I want to be seen as the prime minister of all Kosovo's citizens, Serb and Albanian," he said in an interview on April 7. His primary challenge, he said, is to persuade Kosovo's Albanian leaders and government officials to make changes that benefit the Serbs, rather than just pay lip service to foreign demands for multiethnicity.
Mr. Ceku, a former Croatian general, was a wartime commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group. Serbian government officials refuse to meet with him, but Western officials say he is one of the few ethnic Albanian leaders with the standing to convince local Kosovar authorities that they need to provide services to Serbian communities. He helped calm ethnic tensions at several critical junctures in the last six years, including during widespread rioting in March 2004 when 19 people were killed.
The negotiating teams — a Kosovar panel of ethnic Albanians, and a Serbian group drawn from Belgrade and Kosovo — are to return to the table in Vienna on May 4, when they will debate proposals to give more powers to local authorities. That measure would allow Kosovo Serbs a greater say in running their affairs. The next week discussions should start on the protection of religious and historic sites, in particular the Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries that dot Kosovo.
But the negotiating teams have shown little room for compromise even on these issues, and diplomats expect that they will have to be dealt with in the final phase of negotiations. And comments from representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Germany, who together make up the Contact Group overseeing Kosovo's negotiation process, indicate there is little alternative to granting the majority population its wish for an independent state.
A statement issued by the group after meetings with Serbian leaders in Belgrade on April 6 called on Serbia to be "realistic" in its proposals and to find a solution "acceptable to the people of Kosovo."
The leader of the United Nations mission here, Soren Jessen-Petersen, said he expected Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish statesman and veteran negotiator, to conclude the initial negotiations by midsummer, enabling talks on sovereignty to begin.
Whatever course is taken on political authority, officials here expect the international community to retain significant governing powers. The European Union is expected to take a major role, while NATO will continue to keep the peace. It has 17,000 troops in Kosovo.