15 November 2006

Serbs will never accept the loss of Kosovo: PM

Reuters, Thursday, 2 November, 2006, 11:26 AM Doha Time

BELGRADE: Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica further sharpened warnings against independence for Kosovo yesterday, saying that not only his outgoing coalition but "every future Serbian government" would refuse to accept it.

A few days after warning that countries which recognise an independent Kosovo would suffer consequences in their relations with Serbia, Kostunica said any move to grant statehood to the majority Albanian province was "bound to fail".

Diplomatic sources say UN Kosovo envoy Marrti Ahtisaari is proposing that Kosovo get the right to join world bodies normally reserved for sovereign countries. States would be able to recognise it and it could apply for a UN seat.

Kostunica said he had not seen Ahtisaari's plan but added: "One thing is certain: if Ahtisaari's paper is not in line with the UN Charter, and if it violates the principle of Serbia's territorial integrity, the paper is bound to fail."

"The Security Council will never allow the UN charter to be violated and 15% of Serbia's territory to be taken away," the prime minister told the state news agency Tanjug.

Kostunica said that a new constitution passed in a referendum at the weekend by a narrow majority of the Serbian electorate, "fully defines the stand of every future Serbian government towards our southern province".

Kosovo has been run by the UN since 1999 when Nato bombing forced then-strongman Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Serb forces from a counter-insurgency war in which they killed an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians and drove out nearly 1mn.

The Albanians form 90% of Kosovo's population. They demand independence and vow they will not return to the embrace of the state that tried to exterminate them. Serbia says they can have the fullest possible autonomy, but not their own state.

The West, led by the US, is sympathetic to the Albanians' independence aspirations and impatient with Serbia's insistence on legalisms that clash with the stark realities.

The Albanians were not encouraged to vote in the constitutional referendum although Belgrade's own argument makes them citizens, but they would have shunned it in any case. They say the Serbs simply "want the land but not the people on it".

No major Serb politician openly concedes that Kosovo may be lost for good when the UN makes its ruling in the coming months. But as the decision draws closer, Kostunica's rhetoric is growing noticeably stronger than that of Serbian President Boris Tadic, who is more conciliatory.

The prime minister's stance of late seems more in keeping with that of Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the opposition Radical Party, Serbia's ultranationalists.

Nikolic goes further, however. He says Belgrade should declare Kosovo "occupied territory" if it is taken away from Serbia - a step which could potentially create an open-ended Balkan Cold War.

Nikolic says: "If the European Union takes Kosovo away from us, that door will forever be closed." He adds that Serbia's continued membership of the UN would also be in question.

The Radicals may again emerge as Serbia's strongest party in an early election expected in December. The prospects of them forming a governing coalition have been slim in the past, but a shift in political opinion over Kosovo could change that.