PRISTINA, Serbia, Sept 11 (Reuters) - The new U.N. chief in Kosovo said on Monday it was possible the U.N. Security Council would vote on the fate of Serbia's breakaway province by the end of the year and reports of delay were "speculation".
German diplomat Joachim Ruecker said U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari was on course to make his proposal on Kosovo's "final status" within the next three months. A new U.N. Security Council resolution could swiftly follow, he told Reuters.
Ruecker, who took the reins of the U.N. mission on Sept. 1, said Belgrade should be "more realistic" on the likely outcome, and warned against any Serb bid to split the province in two.
"If we continue to assume, and I think it's a good assumption, that Ahtisaari will be able to meet the timelines as intended, then I wouldn't even exclude that we have a Security Council resolution by the end of the year," said Ruecker.
"Everybody knows that there are risks of delay. Part of our job here is certainly expectation management," said Ruecker, the sixth U.N. governor in Kosovo since 1999.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders are promising independence from Serbia on Jan. 1, 2007, almost eight years after NATO's first "humanitarian" air war drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing and the United Nations took control.
The West too says it wants a decision within the year, wary of growing Albanian impatience and the risk of violence in a territory still patrolled by 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers.
But there has been little hint of a breakthrough in direct talks that began in February in Vienna, focusing so far on the rights and security of the 100,000 remaining Serbs.
Western diplomats say the deadline stands, but shifting international priorities and reports of imminent elections in Serbia have fuelled speculation about a possible delay.
"It would be a real risk if the momentum was lost," said Ruecker, whose previous job was to revive Kosovo's crippled economy and tackle unemployment of more than 50 percent. He said there was "some truth" to what he described as the oft-cited equation: "delay equals destabilisation".
A vote at the U.N. Security Council assumes the support or abstention of veto-holder and traditional Serb ally Russia.
Moscow has cautioned against setting "artificial deadlines".
But as a member of the Contact Group of world powers setting policy on Kosovo it has signed up to a series of guiding principles. They state that the outcome must be acceptable to Kosovo's 2 million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians who demand nothing less than independence.
Western diplomats say some form of independence is likely, under European Union and NATO supervision for years to come.
Belgrade has shown little sign of consenting to the amputation of land many Serbs consider the cradle of their nation. Independence is regularly dismissed as a violation of international law and a threat to regional stability.
Ruecker said Belgrade should be "more realistic" in explaining the situation to Serbs. The Contact Group principles, he said, "predetermine to a certain degree the outcome."
Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians died and 800,000 were expelled in Serbia's 1998-99 war against separatist guerrillas. NATO's deployment in June 1999 coincided with a wave of revenge attacks that saw at least half the Kosovo Serb population flee.
Those who remain fear for the future. The risk is that the mainly Serb north may seek partition, a move the West believes could reignite old conflicts in south Serbia and Macedonia.
Ruecker said it was "inconceiveable that the international community would allow an ethnically divided Kosovo to be the outcome of seven years of international administration."