(www.iht.com) вЂ" Serbia rejected a United Nations proposal that paves the way for an independent Kosovo on Friday, setting up a possible showdown between its supporter, Russia, and the West over the final status of the disputed territory.
Serbia's response came almost immediately after the UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari presented the plan to politicians here and in Belgrade, reports Trend.
"I told Mr. Ahtisaari that Serbia and I, as its president, will never accept Kosovo's independence," the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, said in a statement from Belgrade. He noted that while the plan did not mention Kosovo statehood, it "opens the possibility for Kosovo's independence."
The proposal, which is still subject to weeks of negotiation between the two sides, will require Russian acquiescence in order to win UN Security Council approval and be put into effect. Russia has, until now, backed Serbia's position that Kosovo must remain an integral, albeit autonomous, part of Serbia.
A NATO bombing campaign stopped fighting between Serb and Kosovo Albanian forces in 1999 and put the disputed the territory under UN administration. It has been in limbo since then. Ahtisaari's proposal is intended to finally fix the province's future, closing the final chapter of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
While the plan does not mention independence, its provisions describe de facto statehood, giving Kosovo an army, constitution and flag protected by NATO and overseen by the international community for the indefinite future. It would also allow Kosovo to declare independence if the package is approved by the Security Council.
Ahtisaari avoided addressing the subject of independence at news conferences in Belgrade and Pristina on Friday, but said, "There will be a clear definition of Kosovo's status when I submit my proposals to the Security Council."
He said he did not expect the provisions regarding Kosovo's status to change much before then.
"Let's face it, the positions of the parties are extremely firm on both sides, so on the question of status, I'm not very hopeful" that there will be any more progress toward a compromise, he said.
That shifts the onus on Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, which have supported Serbia's territorial claims in part over concerns about ethnically motivated secessionist movements in their own countries.
In Russia, officials have long expressed support for Serbia's position. By Friday evening, the Russian government had not responded officially, but the deputy chairman of the lower house of Parliament's international affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, said that Ahtisaari's proposal was far from the last word.
"It raises many questions," he said, according to Interfax, "and it appears to me that any haste in trying to implement this plan may bring negative consequences." Ahtisaari did not give a timetable for taking the plan to the Security Council, but said he would set aside the rest of February for further negotiations with the two sides.
The proposal provides for the province's UN administration to be replaced by an international civilian representative who will have veto power over Kosovo government decisions. It also foresees a multiethnic security force of 2,500 troops and 800 reserves, as well as a domestic intelligence agency to monitor threats to internal security.
Kosovo Serbs will be given wide autonomy in six municipalities, including the right to receive financial donations and technical assistance from Serbia.
A constitution, to be written by a 21- member constitutional commission, will need two-thirds majority for approval by the Kosovo Parliament. Kosovo Serbs and other minorities will be consulted on the constitution, but the proposal does not require them to be included in the commission. Serbs and other minorities will be guaranteed seats in the Parliament.
The proposal was met with optimism in Pristina.
"Kosovo will be sovereign like all other countries," said President Fatmir Sejdiu after his meeting with Ahtisaari. The prime minister of Kosovo, Agim Ceku, said the document was "very clear for Kosovo's future."
In Belgrade, however, the mood was glum. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who refused to meet with Ahtisaari, called the proposal "illegitimate," saying that it violated the UN Charter because it would divide Serbia's territory and redraw its internationally recognized borders.
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Moscow.