Final status negotiations for Kosovo, the disputed southern Serbian province administered by the United Nations, are set to begin with the arrival in Pristina of the new United Nations-appointed negotiator, Finnish elder-statesman Martti Ahtisaari.
The respected Finnish politician and diplomat says he is coming to Kosovo to listen and gather information. He will be meeting Tuesday with Kosovo's elected ethnic Albanian leaders, their negotiating team, as well as leaders of the Serbian minority and civil society. Mr. Ahtisaari travels Wednesday to Belgrade for a similar round of meetings. Full-scale negotiations on Kosovo's final status will begin in early January.
Soeren Jessen-Petersen, the Danish diplomat who is the U.N. administrator in Kosovo, is delighted that the final-status talks are at last beginning.
"By moving forward on resolving what I have called the last piece in the Balkans puzzle, we are taking, I hope and believe, the final step in getting the western Balkans back to normalization, stabilization and allowing the entire region to move forward on its European agenda," he said.
In recent days the European Union has sent clear signals that it is willing to grant eventual membership to western Balkan countries provided they comply with EU standards of democracy and human rights.
Kosovo has been under United Nations and NATO administration since a 78-day NATO-led air war halted a Serb crackdown on majority ethnic Albanians in 1999.
In his meeting with reporters Monday, Mr. Jessen-Petersen said there is no fixed timetable for completing the negotiations, even though it is thought they will last only until June or September. With the territory's Albanian majority demanding independence and the authorities in Belgrade rejecting it, the two sides are far apart.
Mr. Jessen-Petersen says whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the settlement needs to facilitate the western Balkans integration into the European Union.
"It must be a settlement that shows [that] both Serbia is moving forward, that Kosovo can also move forward on its European agenda," he said. "I think we need a very strong European Union involvement here in Kosovo after status, and we are discussing that with the EU already now in the area of police, justice, the economy."
The talks could determine if Kosovo is given independence or remain part of Serbia and Montenegro, which replaced Yugoslavia.
The U.N. administrator made clear that there will be no partition of Kosovo and it can not merge with another state. Mr. Jessen-Petersen says he expects what he calls crazy people will employ violence in a futile effort to either speed up or stall the negotiations. He said that referendums in Kosovo or Serbia on the outcome, while useful for gauging public opinion, will have no effect on the result. The pertinent Security Council resolution, he says, reserves that decision to the United Nations alone.