(Reuters) - With its bid to retain Kosovo now a top priority, Serbia is throwing its weight around the Balkans to bolster its position ahead of talks on Monday with leaders of the breakaway province's ethnic Albanian majority.
The clock is ticking for a solution. Mediators from Russia, the United States and European Union have until December 10 to bridge the gulf between a Serb offer of autonomy and Kosovo's demand for independence after eight years of U.N. rule.
Prime ministers and presidents from both sides will be in Vienna on Monday for the fourth meeting since talks began in August, with little hope of compromise.
Russia backs Serbia. The U.S. and most EU states favour giving the Albanians independence, and ending the last open conflict from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
But Belgrade has reached into that same past for ammunition that is testing Western resolve.
In a reminder of Serb influence in the Balkans, nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has for the first time overtly linked Kosovo with Bosnia, backing ethnic Serbs there against reforms they see as an attack on their autonomy and rights.
"Preserving Kosovo and ( Bosnia's autonomous) Serb Republic are now the most important goals of our state and national policy," he said this week.
A Western diplomat said it wasn't the first time Serbia had treated its ethnic kin as pawns, hoping to use Western fears over Bosnia's fragile peace as leverage on Kosovo.