BELGRADE, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Kosovo got the clearest signs yet on Tuesday that independence is coming, but the United States and the European Union seemed divided on whether to delay a U.N. decision so that Serbia can hold an election first.
"It is the firm view of the U.S. that a delay offers no advantages to any party," said Frank Wisner, U.S. envoy to the breakaway Serbia province that has been run by the United Nations for the past seven years.
"The United States further believes that delay can only leave in limbo the definition of this region, which needs to close its door on the past and to define its future," he said in Belgrade after meeting Serbian officials.
Western powers are wary that delaying a U.N. decision on a Kosovo proposal by envoy Martti Ahtisaari -- reported to recommend a two-year path to statehood -- could invite trouble from ethnic Albanian extremists.
But some fear pushing it through before a Serbian election could boost the vote for anti-Western nationalist hardliners.
The U.S. is not convinced by the argument but Wisner, leaving room for compromise, said that until an election date was set Washington could not say if a delay would make sense.
The U.N. launched talks on Kosovo's final status in February aiming to complete them by end 2006. But there has been no compromise on the key issue. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority wants independence; Serbia rejects the demand.
Ahtisaari has given U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan his 'preliminary ideas' on the future of Kosovo, which do not use the word independence yet, but offer a clear path to statehood over the next two years.
The plan sets "criteria which characterise an independent country", a senior Western diplomat in Kosovo told Reuters.
Diplomats say the blow to Serb pride from losing 15 percent of its territory could tilt voters towards hardline anti-Western nationalist parties if it is delivered before a Serbian election now considered imminent.
With this risk in mind, European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana said earlier on Tuesday that Ahtisaari should delay presenting his final plan, if the Serbs schedule an election to be held before the end of this year.
"We would wait to make the decision on what would be the final status," Solana told reporters in Madrid.
CLEARER TIMETABLE COMING UP
The Contact Group on Kosovo -- the US, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Russia -- is to meet on Nov.10, and may decide on timing if Serbia has set an election date by then.
Most Serb parties, including the ultranationalist Radicals, the country's strongest, say elections should be held as soon as possible. If they are scheduled for December, the decision on Kosovo would likely be stalled by a couple of months at most.
But Kosovo Albanians, who have been waiting in limbo to get their own state for seven years, oppose any delay at all.
The province of 2 million has been run by the UN since 1999, when a 78-day NATO bombing war drove out Serb forces accused of killing civilians while fighting separatist guerrillas.
The Kosovo-based diplomat said Ahtissari's plan would begin by letting Kosovo join world bodies reserved for sovereign states. States would subsequently be free to recognise it as Europe's newest independent state, or not.
The compromise is reportedly the result of opposition from Russia -- U.N. veto holder and sometime Serb ally -- to the notion of a U.N. resolution directly making Kosovo independent.
Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku said "it would be a problem" if Ahtisaari's plan does not use the word 'independence'. But in a conciliatory note he added that Kosovo's government would look carefully at "the substance of the proposal", not the letter.
"It is very important that the substance of his proposal means independence," he told a news conference.
The impact of a delay in the decision for the highly volatile province, however, may be harder to gauge. Some Kosovo Albanian hardliners believe they ought to have declared independence unilaterally long ago.
U.N. agencies and NATO peacekeepers both have contingency plans for trouble as the decision process reaches its climax. (additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Madrid)