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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

No deal in sight on Kosovo

EUObserver- Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders stuck to their diametrically opposed positions during their first direct talks on the future of Kosovo on Monday – but the EU "welcomed" the meeting which saw the Serb prime minister stay away from lunch.

Serb president Boris Tadic and prime minister Vojislav Kostunica met their Kosovan counterparts Fatmir Sejdiu and Agim Ceku in Vienna on Monday (24 July), under the guidance of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari with US and EU envoys also in tow.

"As the first meeting of its kind, today's discussion was meant to enable both sides to present and argue their respective positions, and the meeting did achieve that objective," Mr Ahtisaari said after the talks.

"It is evident that the positions of the parties remain far apart: Belgrade would agree to almost anything but independence, whereas Pristina would accept nothing but full independence," the UN top diplomat said.

Kosovo is officially still a Serb province, but has been under UN administration since the end of the war in 1999 when NATO drove out Serbian forces ending their crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

No handshaking
The two delegations on Monday entered the Viennese palace room from the opposite ends, without shaking hands.

The camps had lunch around the same table, but Mr Kostunica stayed away from his chair next to Mr Ceku, for "phone consultations" before the meeting continued in the afternoon.

The Serbian prime minister in his speech said that "in the history of Europe there can't be found any precedent which would serve as an argument to take away from Serbia 15 percent of its territory and change the internationally-recognized border against it will".

He added Serbia is ready to accept a "substantial autonomy" however, according to which Belgrade would retain power over key policies in Kosovo.

Under the proposal, Serbia would hold on to "basic elements of sovereignty" such as foreign policy, border control, customs, human rights, monetary policy and the protection of cultural and religious heritage.

The Serbian proposal also stipulates that Kosovo would be completely demilitarised , meaning there would be no Serbian or Albanian military forces, with the UN acting as a guarantor.

Alpha and omega
But Kosovo's president Mr Sejdiu said that it is time to end the status quo, which has "hampered the economic development and has provoked political tensions."

The continuation of the status-quo "is not in the interest of anybody in Kosovo, and in the region" he continued, adding that it "damages the peace and the overall stability in South-Eastern Europe".

"An overwhelming majority of Kosovan people wants Kosovo to become an independent and sovereign state", the president explained, adding "independence is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of our position."

Ethnic Albanians represent around 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population.

EU future
Despite the deep divisions, EU officials welcomed the meeting, while urging both Belgrade and Pristina "to engage constructively and show flexibility."

"The meeting is welcome. Clearly, there are divided views on the status question but it is important that with this meeting a new phase of the talks has begun," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's spokeswoman said.

"This process in our view should lead to a Kosovo which is multi-ethnic, democratic and secure for all citizens, which can contribute to regional stability and which is able to make progress towards the EU," she added.

The international community is keen to settle Kosovo's final status by the end of the year, but it is unclear if future bilateral talks will follow the same format or take place at a lower political level.

"It is a bit premature to start speculating on the timeframe," the UN's Mr Ahtisaari indicated, adding that a more detailed schedule might emerge following internal UN meetings in mid-September.
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