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EU's Solana Addresses Lingering Balkan Tensions  - 2004-09-28

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was in the Balkans Tuesday, urging Kosovo Serbs to take part in next month's elections and exhorting Slovenia and Croatia to settle a border dispute through dialogue.

Amid signs that Kosovo's beleaguered Serb minority will stay away from the polls during general elections on October 23, Mr. Solana indicated that he still believes that a multiethnic society is feasible in the bitterly divided province.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority is seeking independence for the region, which is officially part of Serbia-Montenegro, the successor state to Yugoslavia. Serbs in Kosovo want it to remain a province of Serbia-Montenegro. Kosovo is now, in effect,an international protectorate.

The major Serb political parties in Kosovo have heeded a call by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to boycott the polls. But Mr. Solana told reporters in Brussels before departing on his trip, that would be wrong.

"I would very much like for the Kosovo Serbs to participate in the elections," he said. "Still, we're in time. And I think it will be - to my mind - a mistake if they do not participate in the elections."

Mr. Solana and other international officials say talks aimed at settling Kosovo's final status depend on progress in firmly establishing the rule of law and guaranteeing minority rights. Twenty of the 120 seats in the legislature to be elected next month are reserved for Serbs and other minorities.

Mr. Solana arrived in Kosovo after a brief trip to Slovenia, where he called on leaders of the new EU member state to try to find a way out of a border dispute with neighboring Croatia, which hopes to join the EU in 2007.

Relations between the two former Yugoslav republics soured last week after Croatian police detained several of Slovenian politicians who crossed into a disputed strip of land between the two countries. The incident escalated into a bitter diplomatic exchange, and the Slovene government threatened to oppose Croatia's efforts to join the EU.

Mr. Solana urged both sides to moderate their tone and talk things over. And he offered to help mediate the dispute.

"The European Union is a place where conflicts and disagreements are solved through dialogue," he said. "There is no other way. I am ready and willing to help catalyze that dialogue to solve the problem."

Slovenia holds general elections on Sunday, and even though only a tiny fraction of its border with Croatia is in dispute, nationalist politicians in both countries have tried to exploit the problem for political gain.