( Reuters ) - The European Union does not expect Serbia to resort to violence if ethnic Albanians declare independence in its contested province of Kosovo, a senior EU official said.
But the EU's external relations commissioner said there was concern for the future of minority Serbs in Kosovo because of possible threats to a key European democracy watchdog mission in the province from the pending independence bid.
"We do not foresee violence or any extreme actions (by Serbia). I think the Serbian foreign minister has clearly ruled out violence," Benita Ferrero-Waldner said at Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe headquarters in Vienna.
She noted the EU had invited Serbia on Monday to sign an interim political accord on February 7 covering trade and relaxation of visa rules. She said 70 percent of Serbs preferred integration in the EU to relapsing into nationalist isolation.
"That's a highly important offer to Serbia to come closer to the EU," she told reporters.
Analysts said the gesture was designed to help Belgrade's pro-Western president win a tough election runoff on Sunday over a nationalist challenger strengthened by resentment over Kosovo's looming breakaway.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said in mid-January that Belgrade would never recognize the independence of Kosovo but would not use violence to prevent it.
But Ferrero-Waldner said Kosovo Serbs could suffer if the OSCE's Kosovo mission was forced out in the aftermath.
Diplomats said Serbia and Russia have signaled they will break a consensus in the 56-nation OSCE needed for a continued mission if the majority Albanians declare independence and this garners recognition from Western states, as expected.
OSCE missions normally get extended on an annual basis by consensus. But in December OSCE foreign ministers decided under apparent Russian and Serbian pressure to put its Kosovo mission under a month-by-month renewal regime, diplomats said.
"In Kosovo, all communities including the Serb minority have a vital interest in the OSCE's work on protection and on confidence- and institution-building," Ferrero-Waldner said in a speech earlier to the OSCE's Permanent Council.
"Any threat to the OSCE's presence will be at the expense of the most vulnerable members of Kosovo society - ethnic minorities. Let us think carefully before taking decisions."
The OSCE has played a central role in fostering democratic institutions and practices in Kosovo since 1999 when NATO bombed Serbian forces out of the province, ending a brutal crackdown on rebellious Albanians, and the United Nations took charge.