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Europeans Upbeat on Serbia-Kosovo Status Talks

With United Nations Kosovo envoy Martti Ahtisaari in New York and Washington reporting on the recent launch of Kosovo status negotiations, analysts in Europe are cautiously optimistic that the talks will produce a settlement by the end of the year.

Austrian diplomat Albert Rohan is Ahtisaari's deputy and the man in day-to-day charge of the Kosovo negotiations. Speaking to VOA in his office in Vienna, Rohan said the first round of talks on February 20 went better than expected. He says the second round, scheduled for Vienna on March 17, will deal with concrete issues important to both sides. These include local self-government, minority rights and responsibilities, religious and cultural sites, a division of assets and liabilities, and the future of the international presence in Kosovo.

In what the United Nations is calling a bottom-up approach, the Kosovo negotiations are leaving the question of status until the end. Rohan says U.N. negotiators and a contact group of six major powers have agreed that the talks should be completed by the end of the year.

"There were those, especially the Kosovars, who wanted a final solution of the status by summer," he said. "And we told them that is totally unrealistic. And there were others who wanted the negotiations to take two or three years. But this was not on either. So somehow we and the contact group have settled on 2006 as a framework."

Rohan says private messages sent to the two sides of the talks by the British, Italians, Germans and Americans, that the negotiations were probably headed towards eventual independence for Kosovo helped to move the talks along.

"Those countries that favor a more open, direct, and clear approach went to the two sides with these private messages telling both sides what they think about the future of Kosovo," he added. "And that was very useful because it woke up both sides. It pulled them out of the dreamland and made them have a more realistic approach."

Both Rohan and Ahtisaari say there is basic agreement among contact group members about the Kosovo negotiations. The group includes Russia, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Kosovo remains technically part of Serbia even though Serbs comprise less than 10 percent of the population. A referendum on independence would almost certainly be approved by the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.

Vladimir Gligorov, a Vienna-based scholar who grew up in Belgrade and whose father was the first president of Macedonia, says Serbia has a strong interest in negotiating.

"No, I don't think they [Serbs] will walk out of any kind of negotiations," he explained. "They will negotiate. They will try to get the best deal possible. They will try to get the foreign powers, the international community, on their side, as will Albanians. But eventually this will lead to some kind of a settlement."

Montenegro, Kosovo's neighbor, which in May holds its own referendum on independence, says it will accept any result in Kosovo that is approved by the United Nations. Montenegrin foreign minister Miodrag Vlahovic tells VOA that his country's priority in Kosovo is a firm guarantee of minority rights. Up to 20,000 mostly Serbian speaking Kosovo refugees, he says, are currently residing in Montenegro.