Despite gains by ultranationalists in Serbian elections, the United States is looking for international negotiators to settle within months whether Kosovo, the restive Serbian province, will be recognized as independent.
U.S. negotiators, who are acquainted with a draft proposal from the United Nations special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, are backing his plan for Kosovo's future, Frank Wisner, the State Department's representative for the Kosovo talks, told The Associated Press on Monday. Ahtisaari is widely expected to recommend some form of independence for Kosovo. U.S. negotiators hope he can present his proposals to the U.N. Security Council for a vote by March.
The release of Ahtisaari's plan was delayed in the fall, with the blessing of the United States and the European Union, so it would not inflame nationalist sentiment in Serbia ahead of national polls and thereby hurt moderate politicians.
Official results from Sunday's election, released Monday, showed the ultranationalists, with policies in the mold of the late President Slobodan Milosevic, received more votes than any other single party. Pro-democratic parties were working Monday to unite and form a government.
The United States congratulated Serbia Monday for "a well-run democratic election," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
"The preliminary outcome reflects the fact that the parties dedicated to democratic reform and a modern European future for Serbia" together outpolled the ultranationalists, he said.
Pro-democratic politicians in Serbia have warned that releasing the report before the formation of a new government would bolster ultranationalists further.
Wisner said the United States expected Ahtisaari to open negotiations in Belgrade and Pristina, Kosovo's capital, on Feb. 2 with Serbia's current caretaker government and representatives from Kosovo. Wisner said he hoped negotiations could be completed in February and brought to the U.N. Security Council in March.
Kosovo's relationship with Belgrade has been a major point of contention in Serbia's relations with the United States and Europe since a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists led NATO to intervene through an air war campaign in 1999. Serbia has offered broad autonomy but wants to keep the province, an international protectorate since the NATO intervention, within its borders.
U.S. negotiators hope that the U.N. plan will remove a dispute that has kept parts of the Balkans from integrating with Western Europe.
"The core objective is to bring peace and stability to Southeast Europe by resolving the last contentious issue," Wisner said. "The breakup of the former Yugoslavia is now largely complete; there is only one piece that remains to be settled; that is Kosovo."
Kosovo is unlikely to come out of negotiations with immediate control over its governance. Ahtisaari is pushing for Kosovo to be under international supervision for a period, backed by a NATO peacekeeping force, Wisner said. NATO has patrolled Kosovo since mid-1999.
Wisner said Ahtisaari also will recommend a plan to guarantee the rights of minorities in Kosovo, including ethnic Serbians, many of whom cherish Kosovo as their heartland and site of important Serbian Orthodox churches.
The United States will work diplomatically to prevent a veto from Russia, which has expressed reservations about Kosovar independence and has insisted that any outcome must be acceptable to Serbia, reports AP.
"We have vital interests in the settlement of the Kosovo issue, our European friends have vital interests there, and we will be looking to Russia to take into account those essential interests," Wisner said.
He warned that leaving Kosovo's status unresolved would harm Serbia's chances of integrating in the European Union and joining NATO. But solving the disagreement would aid stability in the whole region.
"Get this matter of Kosovo settled, then you begin to look at a sorted-out Southeast Europe, a sorted-out Balkans where the individual pieces can get into the Western family," he said.
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