PRISTINA, Serbia, July 3 (Reuters) - Russia is frustrating the West's plan for Kosovo independence this year, resisting U.S. pressure and raising a risk of fresh Albanian violence in the breakaway Serbian province, senior Western officials say.
Seven years after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces and the United Nations took control, the United States and the European Union say a decision on Kosovo's "final status" is overdue and should be made in the next six months.
Ethnic Albanians who form 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people want independence. Dipomats expect they will get it, in a form limited for a time by EU supervision and secured by NATO, to continue protecting minority Serbs from possible attacks. But Moscow -- partner of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the U.S. in the Contact Group on Kosovo -- is in no hurry. Its view reflects concern in some EU capitals that a sudden amputation of Kosovo, on top of other recent Serb humiliations, could put Serb ultra-nationalists back in power in Belgrade.
Differences came sharply into focus in the past few days.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, in Brussels on Friday as envoys met, said Washington was "confirmed in our judgment that 2006 must be the year of decision for Kosovo ... the final status talks must conclude this year".
But a senior Russian official told Reuters on Sunday that Moscow saw no need for an "artificial timeframe". Russia stood by the Contact Group's Jan. 30 statement which made clear that "all efforts" should be made for a 2006 settlement, but it "does not say that by all means this has to be over", he said.
"We need to find solution to many so-called technical issues related to the position of minorities in Kosovo," the Russian said. If talks produce "mutually acceptable and sustainable results" a timetable can be set, but now is "too early to prejudge" whether the process will be completed this year.
"The Russians' focus now is on timing," said a senior Western official in Kosovo. "This is where the Contact Group will find things could become difficult."
Others say delay is too risky. Even if independence heads off a risk of renewed Albanian unrest, the U.N. has contingency plans in case of an exodus of half the remaining 100,000 Serbs, and NATO is braced for a Serb bid to partition the province.
While Serbia officially opposes independence, diplomats say it knows the West has made up its mind. Yet there is no sign of the "mutually acceptable" deal that Moscow wants to see.
A political source in Belgrade says Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica wants a delay to April 2007 and a face-saving formula giving Kosovo wide autonomy, years before sovereignty.
If not, ultanationalists already riding high in the polls could come to power, arguing that if Kosovo gets independence then so should the Serbs of Bosnia. A Serb secession from Bosnia would have dramatic consequences in the still turbulent Balkans.
The Albanians expect U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari to make his recommendation to the Security Council by November and to give them the green light for independence. But it is the Council, where Russia has a veto, that must finally decide.
The Russian official said Serbia has a lot on its plate, citing its recent split with longtime sister republic Montenegro which chose independence, and the freeze on its EU membership bid over its failure to net top war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic.
Asked about fears of violence by Albanian extremists if they sense any delay in independence, the Russian said: "We don't like to be blackmailed. If any party resorts to violence it will be very detrimental to that party in negotiations."
One Western official who now predicts a delay says any stalling longer than three or four months means trouble.
Albanians impatient over life in limbo rioted in March 2004, killing 19 people and driving out 2,000 Serbs. Belgrade said it proved Kosovo was nowhere near stability or democracy, and it would redouble the argument if violence erupted again.
Meanwhile, Serbs in north Kosovo threaten to secede in the case of independence, a move that could reignite conflict next door with the Albanians of southern Serbia and Macedonia.
After Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing of Albanians in a two-year guerrilla war, it was only with EU diplomacy that a smaller insurgency was smothered in south Serbia, while Macedonia got Western help in 2001 to stifle ethnic war.
There is concern that ethnic tensions are being kept in check only by the prospect of independence for Kosovo.
"If the light goes out ... by February or March, this will be an impossible mission to manage," said the Western official.