For the first time since the end of the Kosovo war, Serbian and ethnic Albanian delegations will sit down together at the negotiating table. The talks are bound to prove challenging for both sides.
In addition to ethnic strife, Kosovo is plagued by unemployment, corruption and poverty
Six and a half years after the end of the Kosovo war, Serbian and ethnic Albanian representatives will meet for the first time in Vienna on Monday, Feb. 20, to discuss a key issue for both sides of the ethnic divide -- decentralization and local self-government. These talks are seen by many as a necessary prelude to the future talks on Kosovo's final status.
"Decentralization is a key question for Kosovo, but especially for the minorities. It will determine the competences of local self-government as well as the rights and responsibilities of the minorities," said Sören Jessen-Petersen, special representative of the UN secretary general and head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.
"But one thing has to be clear: we're talking about a decentralization, not partition of Kosovo," he said.
International tug of war
UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari is aware of the difficulties that lie ahead
The preparations for direct talks between Serbian and Kosovar delegations have been going on for months. Marti Ahtisaari, the experienced Finnish diplomat and UN special envoy for the future status process for Kosovo, is well aware that neither of the two parties has so far shown willingness to compromise.
"This is a meeting, at which we're starting from scratch by looking at the problems that need to be solved," said Ahtisaari.
Yet the position of the Kosovo Albanians, who are rooting for independence, is fundamentally incompatible with the position of the Serbian government in Belgrade, which insists that Kosovo remains a part of Serbia.
"We insist on the formula: more than autonomy, less than independence," said Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic.
"That means two things: first of all, the protection of the Serbian minority in Kosovo and Metohija and of the churches and monasteries in accordance with European standards. And, secondly, preserving the current state border between Serbia, Albania and Macedonia," Draskovic said.
Serbian Foreign Minister Draskovic rejects the idea of a fully independent Kosovo
It is rather doubtful whether Draskovic will be able to achieve his goal. The legal position of the region is ambivalent. In socialist Yugoslavia, Kosovo was -- together with the northern province of Vojvodina -- an administrative exception. It was declared as an autonomous province of the Republic of Serbia, yet it had a special constitutional status within the federal state. Kosovo had the same institutions like the six federal republics of Yugoslavia: a parliament of its own, a government with its own jurisdiction, as well as full representation in the central institutions of the federal state.
Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 and introduced a brutal police regime in the province, which consequently led to the break-up of Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence under the pressure of Milosevic's violent repression in Kosovo. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia followed the same path in 1991.
Escalation of violence
The Kosovo parliament went underground after the province's autonomy had been revoked. By 1997, the province was ruled in parallel by the Serbian central government and the underground state dominated by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovo Albanians were led by Ibrahim Rugova, who hoped to lead the province to independence through non-violent resistance.
NATO cruise missiles and warplanes attacked Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999
But Rugova was not able to control the escalation of violence. His peaceful strategy failed in 1998 with the outbreak of an armed conflict between the growing Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and the Serbian troops.
With the experience of the horror that the wars in Croatia and Bosnia brought upon the Balkans, NATO forces intervened in March 1999. After three months of air strikes against Serbia, Milosevic was forced to sign the Rambouillet accord and accept the presence of the NATO peacekeeping troops in the region.
The international community took account of Kosovo's complicated legal situation by pronouncing in the UN-Resolution 1244 that Kosovo was a part of Yugoslavia. This resolution, which formed the basis of the Rambouillet accord, however, did not make references to Serbia.
Proponents of independence optimistic
Fatmir Sejdiu succeeded Ibrahim Rugova as Kosovo's president
After the session of the UN Security Council on Feb. 14, Fatmir Sejdiu, Rugova's successor as Kosovo's president, was optimistic that the international community would fulfil the wishes of the Kosovar majority.
"I welcome the engagement of all members of the Security Council....Independence is a realistic option, which is also the will of the people of Kosovo," Sejdiu said.
These days, however, Kosovo is not the only worry of the Serbian government. The union of Serbia and Montenegro, the last country to claim itself as a legal successor to Yugoslavia, is on the verge of a break-up. On Feb. 25, the Montenegrin parliament will hold an extraordinary session about organizing a referendum on independence.
If the parliament approves the referendum, it could take place as early as May 14, in parallel to the elections in Montenegro. And if Montenegro and Serbia part their ways, it is hard to expect that the international community will force Kosovo to be reunited with Serbia.
An impossible compromise?
The status of Kosovo may therefore be decided by the international community against the wishes of Belgrade. It may additionally frustrate the Serbian minority in Kosovo, which grew increasingly concerned after the outbreak of ethnic violence in March 2004, which -- despite the presence of the international peacekeeping troops in the region -- left 28 people killed, 870 injured and thousands, mainly ethnic Serbs, displaced from their homes. Before the final status of Kosovo is decided, the Security Council will insist that the minorities in Kosovo, and especially the Serbs, receive full and comprehensive minority rights and that they are represented in the country's institutions. The practical implementation and safeguarding of these rights could become the core of a conditional independence under international observation.