New Serbia-Kosovo Talks Expected; Solutions Still Elusive

UNITED NATIONS - Serbia settled for a watered-down UN resolution and agreed to a European Union-backed dialogue with Kosovo that gave some hope of unfreezing the conflict, although it was clear the wounds of the 2003 civil war were far from being healed.

The maneuvers on the resolution in the 192-member General Assembly had been going on for weeks, with Europeans warning Serbia that its original draft resolution, which said Kosovo's unilateral succession was unacceptable, could hinder any prospects for Belgrade to join the EU. The new resolution, adopted by voice vote, dropped all mention of Kosovo's status.

Serbia, where talk about the advent of Byzantine rule in the 11th century is still strong, insists Kosovo is an integral part of its history, especially the Orthodox Church's most venerable monasteries and churches in the north. In 1999 NATO bombs forced out Serbian troops that were killing and expelling ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population, after a two-year war with guerrillas and handed the province to the United Nations.

In 2008 Kosovo declared independence and 70 countries, including the United States and 22 out of 27 EU nations, recognized it. And in July, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, asked by Serbia to review the independence declaration, ruled that Kosovo's action did not violate international law.

But Kosovo is far from becoming a member of the United Nations, especially with Serbia's close ally Russia making it clear it would use its veto in the Security Council to block such a move. Both the Council and the General Assembly have to approve membership. Not only Russia but India, Argentina, Brazil and many other nations ignored the unilateral declaration, fearing that unilateral succession set a dangerous precedent. In addition, Belgrade, when it was the capital of a greater Yugoslavia, was a founding member of the non-aligned movement nearly 50 years ago.

"What are they doing here?"
And so on Thursday afternoon, the discussion and vote on the resolution, was delayed nearly three hours because Kosovo officials, not U.N. members, were sitting in the back of the General Assembly. "What are they doing here?" asked Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic.

The problem, after many huddles in the aisles, was solved after Assembly President Ali Treki announced that the Kosovo delegation, which included its president, Fatmir Sejdiu, as well as its prime and foreign ministers, were guests of the United States, France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

In Kosovo itself, there is no fighting but no lasting peace. Nor did the resolution solve the question of Kosovo's status. "The Republic of Serbia does not and shall not recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo," Jeremic told the General Assembly.

Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.S. deputy ambassador, insisted that Kosovo was "a special case and not a precedent for other conflicts," a reference to the fears of succession.

Germany's UN Ambassador Peter Wittig and his British counterpart, Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, welcomed the resolution as a new phase that would bring the Balkans closer to Europe.

Noting that all 27 members of the European Union as well as Serbia sponsored the resolution, Lyall Grant told reporters he hoped that Belgrade and Pristina would accept the EU offer for a dialogue, adding: " I think it marks the start of a new phase between Kosovo and Serbia. It marks a departure from the past."

But the obstacles are formidable, including mutual suspicion, incompatible agendas and uncertainties about the true goals of each. The International Crisis Group, a research and investigative body, says:

"Failure to negotiate in the next months would probably freeze the conflict for several years, as the parties entered electoral cycles, during which the dispute would likely be used to mobilize nationalist opinion and deflect criticism of domestic corruption and government failures. Enough has changed recently, especially the development of more realistic if not yet fully public attitudes in Belgrade and Pristina, to suggest a win-win solution is possible."

The best guess at the moment is that negotiations will be modest and dwell on practical confidence-building measures rather that more radical proposals for the partition of northern Kosovo or even the well-crafted 2007 plan by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.