( Reuters ) - Russia on Monday stepped in to head off a threatened declaration of independence by Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province, saying it would insist on the extension of negotiations beyond a December deadline.
At the same time, Moscow's envoy to the talks, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, said there was "no chance of a breakthrough" at a final meeting starting at this Austrian spa on Monday afternoon.
Dialogue between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians had to carry on, he said, two weeks before a U.N. deadline expires on Dec. 10, after which the West says the process is ended.
"We will insist on the continuation of the status process through dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina," he told the Belgrade Blic newspaper, adding that the U.N. Security Council would have the final word.
Envoys from Russia, the United States and the EU were due to join Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders for a sixth and final round of talks due to end Wednesday morning, and complete a last-chance search for a deal forced by Russia's threat to veto a U.N. plan granting Kosovo independence.
Kosovo Albanians say they could negotiate with Serbia "for another 100 years" and come no closer to a deal.
All sides are now looking beyond the talks to an expected declaration of independence by the U.N.-run province in the next three months.
Recognition is expected to come quickly from the major Western powers who in 1999 unleashed NATO bombers to end a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency. Almost one million Albanians fled.
Serbia last week instructed government ministers to draw up an 'Action Plan' in the event of a unilateral declaration - "the blackest scenario," said deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic.
Analysts predict roadblocks, obstruction of electricity supplies and possibly the establishment of Serbian-controlled areas in Kosovo, similar to those set up in Bosnia and Croatia 16 years ago.
But the Kosovo Albanians, who are determined to end eight years as a de facto U.N. protectorate since the 1998-99 war, said they were ready to ride out the storm.
"We have nowhere to go and we are ready to face all the challenges," outgoing Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku told reporters in Baden late on Sunday.
"We are very much aware that with a declaration of independence as a necessary step, we are going to be faced with some challenges," he said.
Diplomats say the province, which is looking towards a new coalition government in December, plans to declare independence in January or February. Serbia enters the final talks knowing it has failed to persuade a significant number of EU member states to oppose such a move.
EU diplomats say that of the 27 members, only Cyprus and Greece remain firmly opposed. The bloc is in the final stages of planning to deploy an 1,800-strong police and justice mission to take over from the eight-year-old U.N. mission.