Kosovo cabinet in place, independence next on agenda

( dpa ) - The Kosovo parliament on Wednesday backed the new Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, President Fatmir Sejdiu and their government built on promises of independence and closer alignment with the West.

"We are ready to turn Kosovo into an independent, sovereign state in the first part of the year," Thaci said before the vote. "We will turn our dream, the right to an independent Kosovo, into reality."

Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and Sejdiu's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) overcame rivalries to forge an alliance tasked with engineering secession from Serbia.

The two largest parties in Kosovo, the PDK and LDK combined for 62 out of the 120 seats in the parliament in the November 17 election. Thaci and Sejdiu both placed independence on top of the coalition's agenda.

The new cabinet, passed with 85 votes in favour, 22 against and 4 officials abstaining, has a four-year term, double what it was before the UN administration in Kosovo amended the province's constitution framework earlier this week.

Sejdiu kept the post within the power-sharing deal. He resigned and was re-elected by parliament just before, his mandate extended from three to five years. Sejdiu had 68 votes behind him.

"Kosovo institutions will finalize the process of independence," Sejdiu, 56, said. "We'll undertake all the necessary steps to accelerate our integration in the Euro-Atlantic structures."

The new Kosovo cabinet has two deputy premiers, one each from the PDK and LDK, and 15 ministries, seven run by the PDK, five by the LDK and the remaining three by minority officials - two Serbs and a Turk.

Nominally still Serbia's province, Kosovo has been run by a UN administration since NATO ousted Belgrade's security forces to end ethnic bloodshed there in 1999.

A 90-per-cent majority among 2.2 million Kosovars, the Albanians impatiently hope that independence would finally allow them to turn around the moribund economy and curb rampant crime and corruption.

Thaci acknowledged problems other than the status issue: "We know that independence will not solve all our problems, so we should ready ourselves to face the new problems in the next phase."

The United States and most EU countries back Kosovo's independence bid, but Russia has supported Serbia's claim of property and has blocked a secession recognized by the UN.

Thaci and Kosovo are left with the option of a unilateral declaration of independence, which Western powers would recognize, but not Serbia and Russia, along with a few EU countries.

The EU is expected to decide on January 28 on sending 1,800 experts within a law-implementation mission that would replace the lumbering UN administration and help Kosovo's first sovereign steps.

Pristina officials hinted at a declaration of independence in the first quarter of 2008. According to a tentative agenda, it would come after the Serbian presidential election run-off on February 3.

Belgrade has threatened "measures" against Kosovo, including trade sanctions and a border blockade, if it declares independence.

Serbia's fragile, uneasy government coalition is deeply divided over Kosovo, unsure whether to continue the country's approach to the EU if the 27-member bloc deploys the Kosovo mission against Belgrade's will.

Serbia insists that the UN presence may not be changed or replaced without the approval of the UN Security Council - which is impossible while Russia opposes it. That path would condemn Kosovo to remain in a limbo that the West plainly does not want to sustain any longer.

The new Kosovo government:

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci Deputy PM Hajredin Kuqi (PDK) Deputy PM Rame Manaj (LDK) Minister of Energy and Mines Ms. Justina Pula-Shiroka (PDK) Minister of Justice Nekibe Kelmendi (LDK) Minister of Education, Science and Technology Enver Hoxhaj (PDK), Minister of Health Alush Gashi (LDK), Minister of Internal Affairs Zenun Pajaziti (PDK) Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Skender Hyseni (LDK), Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Idriz Vehapi (PDK), Minister of Trade and Industry Lutfi Zharku (LDK), Minister of Local Governance and Administration Sadri Ferati (LDK), Minister of Economy and Finance Ahmet Shala (PDK), Minister of Transport and Telecommunication Fatmir Limaj (PDK), Minister of Public Services Arsim Bajrami (PDK), Minister of Environment and Spatial Planning Mahir Yagcilar (Kosovo Turk Democratic Party) Minister of Returns and Communities Boban Stankovic Minister of Work and Social Welfare Nenad Rasic

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