Russia warns as Kosovo independence looms

( Reuters ) - Kosovo is expected to declare independence from Serbia next Sunday, but a top Russian official warned that Europe could open a "Pandora's box" if it recognized the move over Belgrade's objections.

"It will all be done by Sunday," a senior political source told Reuters, saying Pristina would invite the European Union to send in a planned supervisory mission and NATO to stay on at the head of a peacekeeping force.

The source denied speculation that it would be a two-stage process, with a statement of intent next weekend and an actual declaration in March.

Kosovo hopes for quick recognition from the United States and from the EU, whose foreign ministers meet on Monday February 18, but Russia is dead set against.

"If it comes to a unilateral recognition of Kosovo, that would be a precedent," First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said at a conference in Munich.

"That would definitely be beyond international law, and it would be something close to opening a Pandora's box," he said, meaning it could lead to unpredictable outcomes.

He said Russia would not, however, respond tit-for-tat by immediately recognizing independence bids by two Georgian breakaway provinces it supports.

Kosovo's minority Serbs are also planning a virtual secession of their own, with proposals to establish an "assembly" next Saturday in the Serb-dominated Mitrovica region of Kosovo's north, the Kosovo Albanian daily Zeri reported.

It said the assembly was part of a Serb scheme to "create a separate political and territorial entity with special links to Serbia".

Serbia recently opened a government office to oversee public services in Mitrovica , saying it would "intensify" Belgrade's parallel network of services for Serbs. The United Nations, which has administered Kosovo since Serb forces were expelled by NATO in 1999, called it a "provocative act".

"Everything must be done for (Kosovo) Serbs to remain on their land and to live safely as citizens of Serbia after an eventual unilateral declaration of independence," Serbia's Ministry for Kosovo said in a statement on Friday.

Analysts say Serbia, if it can't keep Kosovo, wants to divide it, keeping control of the north, where it already provides health, education and administrative services for Serbs.

Kosovo's independence move was delayed three times in the past year, in deference to Serb-ally Russia's insistence on continuing talks in search of an elusive compromise, and because of its explosive impact on Serbian politics.

Despite two elections - one general, one presidential --, Serbia is still deeply split. Nationalists are determined to halt talks on closer ties with the EU if it goes ahead with recognition. Pro-Western parties say the bid for EU membership must be the country's priority.

The ruling coalition is on the verge of collapse.

Parliament speaker Oliver Dulic told the daily Vecernje Novosti on Sunday that an early parliamentary election was one of the options to resolve the crisis, which will be discussed by pro-EU President Boris Tadic and nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica later this week.

If Kostunica kept turning to hardline nationalist opposition parties to support his unbending position on Kosovo, the coalition would fall, Dulic added.

Labor Minister Rasim Ljajic said everything in Serbia "had ground to a halt", adding: "This is a prelude to chaos."

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