Friday, September 29, 2006

Serbs see Kosovo lost despite wishful thinking

BELGRADE, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Just 12 percent of Serbs believe Serbia will hold on to its Kosovo province, according to the results of an opinion poll published on Friday that fly in the face of Belgrade's official line.

Fifty-eight percent said they wanted the United Nations-administered province to remain part of Serbia, but few believe it is a realistic expectation, said pollster Marko Blagojevic.

"We have two dimensions here. One emotional, and the other rational," said Blagojevic, of the respected Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID).

Serbian leaders "managed to convince the people they want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia, but simply did not make a good enough case for them to expect this," he said.

The United Nations is expected to decide within months whether to grant Kosovo a form of supervised independence, seven years after NATO wrested control of the majority Albanian province to stop what it said was becoming a bloodbath.

Serbia says Kosovo's amputation would violate international law and embolden ethnic separatists across Europe. Parliament is poised to adopt a new state constitution that enshrines Kosovo as Serb land forever. Rhetoric plays constantly on its almost mythic status, the Serbs' Orthodox heartland and site of their epic 1389 defeat by the Ottoman Turks.

But of two million people who live there, 90 percent are ethnic Albanians who lost 10,000 people in the 1998-99 conflict and would see any return to Serb rule as a fresh call to war.

Diplomats say independence is almost certain.

According to the CeSID poll, conducted between Aug 26 and Sept 5, 36 percent said they expected independence. Seventeen percent thought the territory would be split in two, with Serbia taking a thin slice of mainly Serb land in the north.

Only 12 percent thought Kosovo would remain an autonomous region of Serbia, while 29 percent were unsure.

Serbs and Albanians opened direct talks in February in Vienna but there has been no compromise on the central issue of Kosovo's future status. U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari is expected to propose a solution by November which the U.N. could then impose.

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