Martti Ahtisaari, the United Nations chief negotiator for the future status of the Serbian province of Kosovo, says the technical talks between Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority are off to a good start.
In a briefing for reporters, Ahtisaari said it is important that the talks move fast in the initial stages. In Belgrade, Ahtisaari met with the Serbian president, prime minister, foreign minister and ambassadors from Islamic countries. "I told the leaders that the decentralization talks held in Vienna last week were a good start. And I urged them to be continuously engaged," he said.
Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland and veteran international negotiator, left no doubt that the talks will become more difficult as time passes. Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians have staked out what Ahtisaari calls opening bids that are polar opposites and there seems little basis for compromise on the ultimate issue of Kosovo independence. Last week's talks were the first face to face negotiations between the two parties. Ahtisaari said the two sides showed little willingness to compromise. "In other words, starting the process by dealing with practical, I would call them status neutral issues. So apart from decentralization we will run in parallel discussions on cultural heritage, minority rights and economic issues," he said.
Mr. Ahtisaari said he is very concerned about the status of Kosovo's non-Albanian minority. The next round of talks, he said, will take place in Vienna on March 17. He is hopeful that the negotiations on Kosovo's status will be completed by the end of the year.
A five nation contact group of western nations plus Russia has been suggesting that the outcome of the talks will be some form of independence. James Lyon, the International Crisis Group representative in Belgrade, has little doubt that Kosovo will become independent. "Judging by the statements of the contact group, it appears the contact group is committed to the idea that at some point Kosovo will have to have a referendum of its citizens and they will be the ones to decide. Given that 90 percent of Kosovo's residents are Albanians, I think the outcome of that referendum is easy to predict," he said.
Ahtisaari goes from Belgrade to Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and then to New York and Washington for consultations.