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Discussion of Future of Kosovo off Limits in Serbia

Despite having lost control of its southern province of Kosovo to NATO and the United Nations in 1999, Serbia even now has not had serious public discussion about the likelihood that the territory -- and its 90 percent ethnic Albanian population -- will become independent.

In Serbian churches and schools the subject of an independent Kosovo is off limits. A vibrant independent media similarly refuses to debate the issue.

James Lyon, the Belgrade representative of the International Crisis Group, says when it comes to Kosovo, Serbia is in denial. "I think Kosovo is lost to Serbia. It's been lost for some time. It's been lost since 1999."

Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, is the UN chief negotiator on the future status of Kosovo. He says that talks between Kosovo Albanians and the Serbian government are underway.

James Lyon says with the two sides holding opposite positions, the only hope is for Mr. Ahtisaari to focus on technical, relatively non-contentious issues.

"His job, most of all, I think, is to regulate what Kosovo is to look like."

During a visit to Belgrade, Ahtisaari said he is pursuing bottom up negotiations, in which the tough issues (like independence) are saved for later.

"In other words, starting with what I may call practical status neutral issues."

Inside Kosovo, Serbs are coming to terms with the reality that Kosovo is likely to become independent. The anxiety level is rising. Ratko, a farmer near Gracanica, says he will leave.

But Father Nektarije, at the 700-year-old Serbian monastery near Pristina, believes many will stay. "Maybe some will be frightened, but certainly those who have their property here in Kosovo will stay. I'm sure about that."

But here in Belgrade, it's a different world and almost no one is talking about Kosovo.

The Kosovo negotiations are likely to go on for several months.