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Kosovo Status Talks in Vienna Seek Agreement on Local Self-Government

The latest round of discussions on the future of Serbia's mostly Albanian populated province of Kosovo are to take place in Vienna April 3. The main subject of the discussions will be local self-government.

While 90 percent of Kosovo's inhabitants are ethnic Albanian, the northern region of the province, from the town of Mitrovica to Serbia proper, is majority Serb. The Serbs of this area want wide-ranging self-government for their enclaves, which make up less than 10 percent of the province's population of two million. But United Nations negotiator Albert Rohan has rejected suggestions that autonomy be granted to the Kosovo Serbs. The U.N. diplomat visited the region Wednesday to present self-government proposals that will be discussed at Monday's meeting in Vienna.

While the Vienna talks are to ultimately decide whether Kosovo should be independent, the early rounds between representatives of Serbia and the ethnic Albanian-led government in Pristina focus on less contentious issues, such as like social services, economic cooperation and cultural sites. But even these talks will be far from smooth.

The Serbian official responsible for relations with Kosovo Serbs, Sandra Raskovic-Ivic, says Belgrade is insisting that it retain direct responsibility over health care and education in Serbian majority municipalities. "Pristina wants to impose programs in schools and in health and we don't want to do that. Of course, some other things are going to be with local administration and that will be linked with Belgrade and Pristina as well. But schooling and the health system (are) going to be linked with Belgrade 100 percent and funded by Belgrade 100 percent," he said.

The decentralization proposal of the United Nations would allow such financing from Belgrade. Ross Johnson, a Balkans scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says there is some merit to the Serbian proposal. "Providing social services to Serbs on an ethnic basis and providing financial support for that from Belgrade, that all seems reasonable provided it's done transparently and provided it is done through the government in Pristina, and there can be controls," he said.

Johnson says no matter the status of Kosovo, inter-ethnic hostility is so great that it is impossible to contemplate a truly multi-ethnic integrated society in the territory. Currently, there are less than 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo.

Kosovo, half the size of Belgium, has been administered by the United Nations since 1999. A 17,000 strong NATO led force has responsibility for security in the province. NATO intervened militarily in 1999 and forced the withdrawal of the Serbian forces that had driven tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes. The UN negotiations are expected to continue for several more months.