28 January 2007

Kosovo PM tries to win Russia over on independence

Reuters, 30 Nov 2006 19:18:39 GMT By James Kilner

(Updates with invitation to visit Zagreb)

MOSCOW, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku courted the Russian government on Thursday to persuade it to drop resistance to independence for Kosovo, Serbia's breakaway province of 2 million Albanians.

Ceku, a former guerrilla commander, was the first Kosovo leader to visit Russia -- a traditional ally of Serbia -- since NATO expelled Serb troops and the United Nations started governing the region in 1999.

Kosovo, with the sympathy of Western powers, wants independence and has promised to protect the rights of the Serb minority living in the province.

"We just don't want to be ruled by Belgrade any more," Ceku told reporters. "But we do want the Serbs to remain in Kosovo."

Serbia has sought to play down the significance of Ceku's trip to Russia. But adding a new diplomatic feather to Ceku's cap, his spokeswoman said the interim premier had received an invitation while in Moscow from Croatia's President Stipe Mesic and would fly direct to Zagreb for talks on Friday.

Serbia says Ceku is a war criminal, and called it an unfriendly act when former sister state Montenegro hosted him this month.

Russia holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council which means it can block any motion granting Kosovo independence. The Kremlin says independence can be granted only through official negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina.

"If we have a package (presented to the Security Council) which ensures all the rights of minorities in Kosovo then personally I don't see the need for Russia to use its veto," Ceku said.

About 2 million people live in Kosovo, of whom about 100,000 are Serbs, many living in isolated enclaves. Serbs have been the target of revenge attacks and discrimination since the war.

Ceku met Russian deputy foreign minister Vladimir Titov and members of parliament's foreign affairs committee, but despite his enthusiasm a statement by Russia's Foreign Ministry suggested there had been no change in its position.

"It was noted that the Kosovan-Albanian leadership has the bulk of responsibility of making sure there are no extremist campaigns on Kosovan territory which could only complicate the process of stabilisation," the statement said.

It insisted that only direct talks could bring independence.

Russia has said independence would set a precedent for pro-Russian separatist drives by parts of Moldova and Georgia.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has warned that any state which recognises an independent Kosovo in the future will suffer consequences in its relations with Belgrade.

Croatian government sources confirmed the visit of Ceku. Ceku's aides said it would be an official visit to discuss "bilateral relations". But Croatian sources would not confirm that, saying the Kosovo leader "might" meet President Mesic. (Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb)