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The World

Serbia, Kosovo Meet at Last, and Say Little

In their first postwar talks, republic and province make it clear the animosity remains.

October 15, 2003|Sonya Yee and Zoran Cirjakovic | Special to The Times

VIENNA — Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders met Tuesday for their first face-to-face talks since the end of the 1998-99 war in what was intended to be a move toward improving relations but at times seemed only to highlight their mutual antagonism.

"This is the first time that they have talked to each other. It is a very, very important step," Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said at a news conference.

Although the Vienna talks focused on such concrete matters as Kosovo's energy shortages, the status of missing people and the return of ethnic Serb refugees to the Albanian-majority province, the real issue is whether Kosovo will become an independent state.

Kosovo is still technically a province of Serbia, but it has been run by the United Nations since the end of the war. The U.N. insists that such issues as the status of the missing people be solved before the problem of Kosovo's political status can be broached.

"This is sort of a Western or European idea -- when you don't know what to do you bring the parties to the table to negotiate and they think it will lead to compromise," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

Based on Tuesday's talks, in which the two sides appeared barely able to speak to each other, it seemed that any movement toward agreeing on Kosovo's final status was a long way off.

The Serbian delegation was adamant that it would not be drawn prematurely into such talks, while the Kosovo Albanians declared that "independence is an irreversible process."

The two delegations were vastly outnumbered by representatives from the international community, including Solana and other EU officials; NATO Secretary-General George Robertson; and members of the Balkans Contact Group, made up of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia.

Although the closed-door meeting was billed by the U.N. as a "direct dialogue," the Serbian and Kosovo delegations read prepared speeches but did not engage in back-and-forth talks. Afterward, they held separate news conferences, at which they threw out barbs and accusations of bad faith.

Serbs staunchly oppose Kosovo independence. The province has historical and religious significance to Serbia, and the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church has historically been in Pec, in western Kosovo.

Moreover, the Serbian government, increasingly unpopular at home, is facing a no-confidence motion in parliament, and any move seen as conciliatory toward Kosovo's ethnic Albanians would further damage its standing.

Kosovo's majority Albanians sought control of the province with the 1998-99 war, in which U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops stopped Slobodan Milosevic in his effort to force hundreds of thousands of the ethnic Albanians to flee. Milosevic was then president of the former Yugoslavia, whose constituent republics were Serbia and the smaller Montenegro, which are now more loosely linked in a union known as Serbia and Montenegro.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said the sole result of the Vienna meeting was that "we sat together with representatives of the Albanian community."

Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova struck a less antagonistic note, although he referred to Serbia as a "neighbor" and called for recognition of an "independent, democratic Kosovo."

Western diplomats who attended the three-hour meeting said it went as well as it could.

"There was no design to have dialogue today," said Lawrence Rossin, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs. "It unfolded exactly as it was intended, and I believe it had the result it intended to have. But obviously we have a long way to go."

"Did any of us expect spectacular breakthroughs, did we expect the whole agenda of these technical and difficult issues to be sorted out? Of course not," Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, told reporters. "But people got in the same room, they began addressing one another.... The most difficult step is the first one."

Harri Holkeri, the U.N.'s representative in Kosovo, announced at the end of the meeting that it would be followed up with expert-level discussions in Belgrade and Pristina, the Kosovo capital, starting in November.

But analysts who watched the meeting remained skeptical that the two sides would be able to settle differences while the issue of Kosovo's political status stayed unresolved.

"All the talks ... will fail at the end because for both sides the main issue is status," Grubacic said.

*

Yee reported from Vienna and Cirjakovic from Belgrade.

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