Thursday, September 07, 2006

Serbs seek to swap Kosovo delay for election pact

BELGRADE, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Serbia's two main pro-Western parties, estranged former allies, may be ready to join forces to defeat a rising ultranationalist challenge if the West delays a decision on Kosovo until they win an election.

The daily Blic quoted an unnamed government source as saying Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and his rival, President Boris Tadic, had sealed a pact to take on the anti-Western, nationalist Radicals and Socialists in a May 2007 ballot.

"The only condition for the plan to start being implemented is support of the European Union and the United States ... Serb authorities want the future status of Kosovo not to be declared before elections in Serbia," the daily said.

A Western diplomat said it sounded like an odd threat from democrats, to let hardline nationalists take over the country unless the West delays a probable decision to give Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority independence by year's end.

There was no official comment on the report. The diplomat said it might be pure speculation or a trial balloon to test Western reaction. Tadic is currently on a trip to Washington in which Kosovo will be a major topic. The next national election in Serbia is not normally due until the end of 2007. But Kostunica's minority coalition is unlikely to survive a U.N. resolution to make Kosovo independent. Serbia's pro-reform parties and Western powers are concerned that the Serb Radical Party, the country's strongest with a steady 30-35 percent poll rating, could win power on a wave of protest votes unless they faced a united front.

There is also concern that Bosnia's Serb Republic might use Kosovo independence as a springboard for a self-determination referendum, to secede from Bosnia and join Serbia -- a move that Radical-led government would applaud and probably support.


The United Nations has been in charge of Serbia's southern province since mid-1999, after a decade of Serb repression in the 1990s culminated in NATO's first "humanitarian" war to halt Serbia's brutal counter-insurgency crackdown.

Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians died and 800,000 were expelled.

Belgrade insists that Kosovo is its cultural heartland, that it cannot secede but must be content with wide autonomy, and that an imposed solution would have very negative consequences.

Western diplomats say independence is nevertheless the likely outcome since 90 percent of the two million people demand it. But there do seem to be worries about the possible fallout. The Blic story followed a report on Wednesday by the Kosovo Albanian daily Koha Ditore, quoting a Western diplomat as saying the decision could be delayed until the first quarter of 2007, citing "internal developments" in Serbia and Kosovo.

The pro-government Serb daily Politika on Thursday also reported a "delay in the solution to Kosovo's status" because the timetable for a solution this year was overly ambitious. Politika cited "diplomatic circles".

The United States and European allies have said repeatedly they want Kosovo resolved this year and so far there has been no public hint of a delay. Talks mediated by U.N. envoy Marrti Ahtisaari of Finland have been taking place in Vienna and his report is expected at the U.N. Security Council in November.

Russia, a traditional friend of Serbia, is also a member of the Contact Group of powers overseeing the resolution of Kosovo and has said unofficially that it sees no need to set "artificial deadlines" for a final decision. (Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic and Matt Robinson)

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