On the same day on which the EU appointed an Austrian diplomat as its representative in the upcoming talks on the future status of Kosovo, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov headed for Belgrade to discuss political options.
Although the war ended in 1989, Kosovo is still a military zone
On Monday, the EU appointed Austrian diplomat Stefan Lehne to represent the union in the discussions on the future status of the province. Lehne currently serves as director for southeastern Europe in the secretariat of the EU Council and is a senior advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
UN-sponsored talks on the future status of Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province that has been administered by the United Nations and NATO since its 1998-1999 war, are expected to begin later this month.
Ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo by more than nine-to-one, want full independence from Serbia, while Belgrade says it is prepared to offer Pristina "more than autonomy but less than independence."
UN Kosovo envoy Martti Ahtisaari has received full backing from the EU
Lehne's role will be to support the former Finnish president and UN envoy to Kosovo Martti Ahtisaari in helping the two sides reach a compromise. And while the outcome of the talks cannot be predicted, the EU has been signaling that a parallel EU-integration of Kosovo and Serbia could be a way of appeasing both the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians.
"Whatever Kosovo becomes, Kosovo will be part of Europe, or possibly a member of the European Union," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters on Monday.
Russia to support the negotiations
Moscow will support any status of Kosovo that is agreed by both Belgrade and Pristina, and is not a forced solution by the international community, Russia's foreign minister said during his Belgrade visit on Monday.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will travel to Pristina after Belgrade
"There can be no forced solution," Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Belgrade after meeting his Serbian-Montenegrin counterpart Vuk Draskovic.
"As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Contact Group, Russia has always fought for and will continue to fight for a solution found through direct talks between Belgrade and Pristina," said the Russian minister.
The so-called Contact Group of foreign powers that has overseen peace efforts since the former Yugoslavia collapsed during the 1990s Balkan wars comprises the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy.
Avoiding a chain reaction
Draskovic said Belgrade hoped to get the "full support" of its traditional Slavic and Orthodox Church ally to back Serbia's position on the issue.
"Serbia has neither the intention nor the will to rule the Albanian majority in Kosovo," said the foreign minister of Serbia-Montenegro, the only remaining union of former Yugoslavia's six republics.
Dozens of Orthodox churches were destroyed during anti-Serbian riots in March 2004
"We recognize the right of the Albanian people to organize their lives in Kosovo themselves, but that right does not include... the right to change the internationally recognized borders of our state," he said.
Draskovic warned that granting Kosovo independence could lead to a "chain reaction provoking turbulence in both Europe and the rest of the world."
Lavrov later met Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic, before heading to Kosovo for a series of talks with top UN officials and the provincial government in Pristina on Tuesday.
Tadic, of Serbia's pro-Western Democratic Party, said Belgrade wanted to resolve the Kosovo problem by diplomatic means.
"Serbia does not want war. Serbia wants peaceful politics which will provide prosperity to all citizens, both Serbs and Albanians, and protect international interests in the whole region," Tadic said.
Transferred from mass graves in Serbia proper: the remains of Albanian guerilla fighters
Moscow was a strong opponent of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign which drove Serb forces out of Kosovo in June 1999, ending a crackdown by troops under then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic against ethnic Albanian rebels.
When NATO-led troops (KFOR) moved into the province at the end of the air campaign, Russian soldiers unexpectedly took control of the only functioning airport in Kosovo near the provincial capital Pristina. While the move to seize the landing strip almost provoked a diplomatic incident with the West, it drew strong support from the Milosevic regime and Kosovo's minority Serbs.
Russian troops left Kosovo in July 2003, ending their four-year mission in the province. Some 650 soldiers served as part of KFOR in Kosovo and were mainly in charge of protecting areas inhabited by Serbs.