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EU gropes for Kosovo solution


Tullamore, Ireland, April 19, 2004 - Stunned by last month's explosion of violence in Kosovo, the European Union cast around on Friday for a balm to ethnic tensions building over the breakaway Albanian province's future.

The bloc's foreign ministers, meeting in Ireland, agreed that procrastination over the future of Kosovo was no longer an option and asked for senior officials to draw up a road map leading to talks on its final status in mid-2005. "This is our continent, this is one of our neighbours... so the EU must come up with new initiatives on how to restore order to Kosovo, protect minorities and end the violence," Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds told reporters.

Kosovo had been pushed to the back burner since the United Nations and Nato took it over from Serbia in 1999 after a bombing campaign to stop Serbian oppression of the ethnic Albanian majority. But last month's riots, in which 19 people were killed and hundreds hurt, put the issue firmly back on the international community's agenda. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's office said in a paper presented to the ministers for discussion that "a recurrence of violence cannot be ruled out". "Massive dissatisfaction in the population with living conditions and with the international presence provides a fertile ground for extremist groups who aim to further reduce the Serb presence in Kosovo, to promote a mono-ethnic Kosovo and to secure an early solution on status...," it said. Some commentators say talks must start now on whether Kosovo should be an autonomous part of Serbia or become independent - as Albanians demand and Serbs reject. But Solana, asked if the protectorate was still on track for status talks next year, told reporters: "We should not talk about that too much."

The West fears an independent Kosovo would trigger a chain reaction of demands from Albanians in Macedonia, Montenegro and southern Serbia to join Albania. Solana called instead for a "re-energisation" of Western powers' policy that Kosovo must meet rule-of-law, democracy and other standards before its fate can even be discussed.

Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, hosting the EU meeting, told a news conference the bloc was anxious for direct talks between Belgrade and the authorities in Pristina to be resumed. The EU told the Belgrade government in no uncertain terms last month that dividing Kosovo into "cantons" to protect Serbs was a non-starter, but it has encouraged administrative "decentralisation" as a means to this end. "Clearly the idea of decentralisation as a concept for discussion is one that we think should be considered, on the basis that it doesn't mean cantonisation," Cowen said.

One-third of Kosovo's remaining population of 100 000 Serbs live in isolated enclaves among the two million Albanians. The discussion paper called for Kosovo Serbs to be brought back into the political process and moderate Kosovo Albanians to be bolstered. And it pressed for a more robust line to be taken against those advocating violence, possibly through a travel visa ban and measures against "irresponsible media".

ECIKS / Reuters
 
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