Fears grow as Kosovo talks fail
· Tension rises in Balkans over independence plan
· Plea for peace as Russia and Serbia resist change
Two years of negotiations aimed at settling the status of the Balkan province of Kosovo ended in failure yesterday, with the international powers pleading for peace in the volatile region and Washington stressing that Kosovo statehood would be decided soon despite bitter Serbian and Russian resistance.
The collapse of the talks south of Vienna between the Serbian government and the Kosovo Albanian leadership mediated by EU, US, and Russian envoys nudged the former Yugoslav region into the most serious tension since four wars over the spoils of old Yugoslavia concluded in Kosovo in 1999.
The two sides in the talks concluded with diametrically opposed declarations.
"Serbia will not accept the independence of Kosovo," said Serbia's president, Boris Tadic.
"Our goal is to have independence ... by the end of the year," said the outgoing Kosovo prime minister, Agim Ceku.
The stalemate came as no surprise. Under the UN envoy and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, the two sides conducted 14 months of fruitless negotiations that ended earlier this year. Ahtisaari's settlement terms, for internationally supervised statehood for Kosovo, were supported by the majority Albanians of Kosovo and rejected by the Serbs, who say they will not forfeit 15% of sovereign territory.
Russia blocked endorsement of the Ahtisaari package at the UN security council and a further five months of talks were mediated by US, Russian and EU diplomats, led by Wolfgang Ischinger, of Germany. "The parties were unable to reach agreement," said Ischinger. The three mediators have been consistently sceptical of securing a deal and used the negotiations to secure commitments from both sides to abjure violence in the months ahead. The end of the talks opened a high-risk phase dominated by a Serb-Albanian confrontation that could turn violent and also deepen estrangement between Russia and the west.
While Kosovo gets ready to issue a unilateral declaration of independence coordinated with the US and the EU in order to secure maximum international recognition as quickly as possible, Serbia is preparing an "action plan" to try to obstruct "independence". It is likely to include sabre rattling, blockades of Kosovo, a closing of borders, retaliation against countries that recognise Kosovo statehood, and harrowing television pictures of the Serbian minority in Kosovo being turned into refugees.
Serbian police were reported to have prevented a gathering yesterday of Serbian paramilitaries near the Kosovo border. The alleged commander of the self-styled Prince Lazar Guard said he was delaying "formation of our war headquarters. We only want our army and police to defend Kosovo".
The international envoys are to go to the Serbian and Kosovo capitals next week before reporting to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, by December 10.
The Serbs want to prolong the talks. The Kosovo Albanians say enough is enough. Ischinger and his US counterpart, Frank Wisner, agree there is no point in further negotiations. The Russians say more talks are welcome.
"Evident tensions exist," said Wisner. Peace in the Balkans was "very much at stake".
It is expected that all the big EU member states will quickly follow Washington on recognition early in the new year, followed more slowly by almost all the others, with two or three EU countries balking.