Oct 18, 2006

Kosova: Status Talks May Run on Beyond Year-End Deadline

The European Union acknowledged Tuesday that U.N.-led talks to agree on Kosovo's status may run past a year-end deadline because of expected elections in Serbia.

LUXEMBOURG The European Union acknowledged Tuesday that U.N.-led talks to agree on Kosovo's status may run past a year-end deadline because of expected elections in Serbia.

Status talks, led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, started early this year, but have not yet produced results, with Serbia rejecting calls by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority for full independence. The Serbian province has been run by the United Nations and NATO since a 1999 war.

Ahtisaari was expected to report to the U.N. Security Council by the end of the year on a possible solution to Kosovo's future; however, he warned last week no negotiated deal was in sight.

"There is a possibility in Serbia there will be a referendum on the constitution, after that elections, and we think that if that is the case, probably or it's likely President Ahtisaari may adapt the timing," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said the delay would be "not be more than a few weeks or months at the most."

Early elections in Serbia are tentatively planned for mid-December following parliament's adoption of a new constitution defining Serbia as an independent state for the first time since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The constitution — which has faced criticism for declaring U.N.-run Kosovo part of Serbia regardless of the outcome of ongoing international talks on the province's future status — needs to be approved at the Oct. 28-29 referendum before it can take effect.

Without providing details, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said the Ahtisaari talks were crafting "some sort of independence" for Kosovo but warned resolving differences over the status of the province would create a major challenge for Europe.

"Kosovo will become one of the most difficult problems that will face the European Union in the months ahead," he told reporters.

"It will be a test case for the EU foreign policy (and) will have consequences for relations with Russia" which opposes independence for Kosovo and has linked the territory's future to the fate of Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Georgia.

The EU foreign ministers meeting also said the European bloc would expand its presence in Bosnia next year when the broad executive powers of the U.N. administrator shift to elected officials.

U.N. administrator Christian Schwarz-Schilling's office is scheduled to close on June 30. Only "threats to peace and stability" will change that, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and Solana said in a report.

But the EU role will be significantly increased after June, the foreign ministers said so it can nudge the Bosnian government toward further reforms.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has been negotiating an association agreement — a precursor to eventual EU membership someday — with the EU since 2005. The EU hopes to conclude these by year's end.

In elections this month, Bosnia's ethnic groups in the country shifted from old nationalist parties that led them into the 1992-95 war. But they remained divided about the future, with Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats supporting politicians who want to unify the Balkan nation, while Serbs backed a candidate whose party advocates continued ethnic division.

The EU has a peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina of about 6,000 troops. It has been discussing a reduction to 1,500 but has held off on a final decision.