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US Urges Kosovo to Focus on Creation of Multi-Ethnic Democratic Society - 2004-02-05

The United States Thursday urged Kosovo's leaders to focus on meeting U.N. standards for democracy rather than the question of the majority ethnic-Albanian province's possible independence from Serbia and Montenegro. The prime minister of Kosovo, Bajram Rexhepi, is in Washington this week and met Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other officials.

Though Kosovo's leaders say that uncertainty about the province's future is hurting its economy, the State Department says their attention should be on creating a multi-ethnic democratic society rather than Kosovo's ultimate status.

The comments follow talks late Wednesday between Secretary Powell and Mr. Rexhepi, who was in Washington to attend Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that attracts a number of foreign leaders and political figures.

Kosovo, a province of the former Yugoslavia, has been a United Nations protectorate since 1999, when NATO air strikes forced Serb forces to withdraw after a brief but bloody conflict with separatist ethnic-Albanian guerrillas.

In December, the U.N. chief for Kosovo, former Finnish prime minister Harri Holkeri, presented a set of standards for building democracy for Kosovo.

They are to serve as the basis for a U.N. assessment by the middle of 2005 on whether the province is ready for talks about its final status, either independence or autonomy within the new Serbia and Montenegro.

At news briefing State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that in meetings with Mr. Rexhepi, Secretary Powell and Under-Secretary of State Marc Grossman stressed the importance of implementing the U.N. standards and cooperating with Mr. Holkeri's administration.

"We continue to support the efforts of the U.N. in Kosovo and the leadership of U.N. Special Representative Holkeri to bring about a multiethnic, democratic society in Kosovo, as defined by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244," he said. "At this time, we believe progress needs to focus - the focus needs to be on making progress on standards, particularly those involving multi-ethnicity, and not a discussion of final status. We have not taken a position at this time on the outcome of final status discussions."

Mr. Boucher said the United States remains committed to the province's development and will continue to work with allies to create a stable and democratic Kosovo.

In an interview with The Washington Times newspaper Thursday, Mr. Rexhepi said the U.N. administration had overstayed its welcome, and that inability of the international community to focus on an "ultimate vision" for Kosovo had made the job of governing it much harder.

He said Kosovo's uncertain future was, among other things, scaring away investors and delaying privatization deals for state-owned industries.

Mr. Rexhepi also said Kosovo's ethnic-Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population, remain overwhelmingly committed to independence.

The province's ethnic Serbs, most of whom fled Kosovo during the war, want it to stay a part of Serbia and Montenegro. The estimated 80,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo live mainly in enclaves protected by the 19,000 member NATO security force there.