Thursday, September 21, 2006

Serbia's PM counts on Russia's veto of possible Kosovo independence

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - The Serbian prime minister said Thursday he is counting on Russia to prevent the possible independence of the province of Kosovo.

Russia and its President Vladimir Putin "in this historic moment for Serbia have a principal stand ... that there can be no unilateral changes of borders of sovereign states," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said.

While formally still part of Serbia, Kosovo may become an independent state if the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Italy -- which are overseeing U.N.-mediated talks on its future -- agree to redraw Serbia's borders and accept the Kosovo Albanians' demand for sovereignty.

Once the so-called Contact Group reaches a conclusion on Kosovo's future status, a decision needs to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has veto power. The Western states appear to be inclined to grant Kosovo's independence.

Kostunica, whose government rejects Kosovo's secession, said that Russia supports "an agreement over Kosovo that will be accepted by both sides and approved in the Security Council."

Kosovo, where independence-seeking ethnic Albanians comprise 90 percent of the 2 million people, has been an international protectorate since 1999 when NATO bombing forced Serbia to stop its crackdown on the province's ethnic Albanian separatists and hand over authority there to a U.N. mission and the alliance.

U.N.-mediated negotiations, which began in February, aim to settle the province's status by the end of the year.

Putin has repeatedly said that independence for Kosovo could set a precedent for other breakaway regions such as its own province of Chechnya. Russia is a traditional Serb ally.

"Serbia will know to remember and appreciate this Russian support for the preservation of justice, stability and peace," Kostunica said.

Kostunica also urged a quick adoption of a new Serbian constitution that would refer to Kosovo as an "integral" part of Serbia, whatever the outcome of the negotiations with the Kosovo Albanians.

Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, said that the adoption of the new constitution "would prevent those who want to grab Kosovo from us."

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