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Serbs, Kosovars Go into Status Talks with Little in Common


A Kosovar politician and a Serbian affairs specialist squared off at a forum on the future of Kosovo sponsored by the U.S. government funded Institute of Peace. The two found little in common on the question of the future of the secessionist Serbian province.

Former Albanian guerilla leader turned politician, Hashim Thaci, agreed that 2006 is the critical year for Kosovo. The territory's 90 percent Albanian majority, he says, have been waiting since 1999 for the independence that they overwhelmingly favor. The United Nations, advised by a contact group of the major powers, is opening the final status negotiations that will have to bridge seemingly incompatible positions. Serbia, which has not exercised power in Kosovo since 1999, is offering widespread autonomy that stops short of independence.

Thaci, not yet 40 years old, heads Kosovo's second largest party that won 27 percent of the vote in the territory's 2004 parliamentary election. He is a member of Kosovo's status negotiating team. Thaci warned of renewed conflict if independence is not granted. "If a scenario other than independence occurs, the impact of this would be devastating and destabilizing for the entire region. It would, in one case raise Serbian nationalism and, two, at the same time disappoint many in Kosova," he said.

Obrad Kesic, an American citizen born in Serbia who is a Washington-based Balkans analyst, also warned of renewed conflict if Kosovo, legally part of Serbia, is split off and made independent despite the opposition of the Serbian government.

"If independence is forced without Serbia's agreement, you'll have long-term instability affecting Bosnia, Macedonia, southern Serbia and other states in the region," he said.

Kesic says the negotiations are not likely to reach consensus and that the status question will likely be deferred. That, he says, could ignite fresh ethnic Albanian violence against the tiny Serb minority in Kosovo.

Thaci said that Kosovar politicians acknowledge that there will be no independence without guarantees for the non-Albanian minority. He denied Serbs in Kosovo are under constant threat, must live in protected enclaves and can travel safely only when escorted by NATO peacekeepers.

The status negotiations are being led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who was instrumental in reaching the 1999 accord that led to an end of NATO's air war against Serbia and the withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo. Ahtisaari is being assisted by deputies from the United States, European Union and Russia.

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