Friday, August 10, 2007

Diplomats to visit Kosovo, seeking new talks

By Nicholas Wood

A month after talks on the future of Kosovo foundered at the UN Security Council, envoys from the United States, the European Union and Russia met Thursday before making a three-day visit to the Balkans to try to start a new round of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership. But politicians and diplomats in the region said they were skeptical that an agreement could be reached.

Officially, diplomats argued that new talks — for which they were allotting 120 days — could lead to a compromise, thereby bridging what has become a substantial rift between Russia, Serbia's main ally, which opposes independence for Kosovo, and Western governments.

So far Russia has rejected a United Nations plan, devised after 14 months of negotiations between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo ended in deadlock. The plan would give Kosovo independence from Serbia, though under the supervision of a European-led mission. Russia has threatened to veto the plan in the Security Council and has insisted that any settlement needs the agreement of both Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders.

The Troika, as the Russian, European and American envoys are being called, is expected to work out a process for the talks this weekend, diplomats in the region said. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, has set a deadline of Dec. 10 for the conclusion of talks.

Both sides are sticking to hardened positions: Ethnic Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of the population, want independence, while Serbia, which has nominal sovereignty over Kosovo, says it would agree to substantial autonomy but not full independence.

"Any proposal other than independence is unacceptable," the Kosovo prime minister, Agim Ceku, said to reporters in Pristina, the capital, Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic of Serbia appeared to adopt a more conciliatory tone, saying his government was ready to compromise by offering Kosovo rights associated with sovereignty, such as membership in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The United Nations has administered Kosovo since 1999, when Serbian armed forces, accused of committing atrocities against ethnic Albanians, were forced to leave the province after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign.

Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to London, who is traveling to the region as the European Union's envoy, put the burden squarely on Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians.

"We are offering Belgrade and Pristina another opportunity — maybe the last opportunity — to work out a negotiated solution," he told the BBC in London, where the Troika's representatives met before their visit. "If there is success of this effort, it will be their success; if there is failure of this process, it will be their failure."

But some diplomats who have been involved in the negotiations since they began early last year say that ultimately a settlement will have to be imposed.

"There is nothing to negotiate," said a Western diplomat in Pristina. "There is no compromise to be found."

A European diplomat involved in the previous negotiations in Vienna compared the situation to "Groundhog Day," the 1993 movie in which the main character relives the same day again and again.

The stumbling block to an imposed settlement is that a number of European governments are unwilling to support a settlement that does not have backing from the United Nations.

While further talks are unlikely to produce a settlement, these two diplomats said, they could allow the European states to find a common position, and perhaps to recognize Kosovo unilaterally. That is a position that Washington proposes if the negotiations fail.

Last month, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany of Hungary said the EU would have no alternative.

"We must have an answer in case talks fail," he told reporters in Budapest. "And this answer cannot be anything other than a united action by the EU and NATO."

"The emancipation of Kosovo is an unstoppable process. If Kosovar Albanians lose hope of independence in the near future, then we will be faced with a crazy security challenge within a week."

But his view is not shared throughout the EU. Other governments, notably Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia, have said they are opposed to the Union's recognition of Kosovo in the event of a stalemated negotiation.

(Source : IHT)

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