- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

Kosovo’s Albanian majority will face a test of its strength as the province pushes for independence by the end of the year, while reassuring the minority Serbs they will have a home in the new country, a top adviser to Kosovo’s prime minister said in an interview.

Naser Rugova, nephew of the late Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova and founder of a reformist faction within the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, said during a Washington visit last week that the United States and its European allies are pressing for signs from the ethnic-Albanian leaders they will not take revenge against Serbs and other minorities.

“Our first priority has to be to make Kosovo into a normal nation, an environment in which any citizen can live freely and in peace,” said Mr. Rugova, a senior policy aide in the office of Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku. “I think the United States and the international community are looking for more courageous action from our side to show this.”

Albatros Rexhaj, an adviser to Mr. Rugova, said that integrating ethnic Serbs — who make up less than 10 percent of the province’s population of 2 million — into an independent Kosovo “will be our No. 1 national security challenge.”

U.S. and European troops remain in Kosovo under a U.N.-led civil administration seven years after a NATO bombing campaign drove forces under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from the province. A series of “final status” talks in Vienna, Austria, this year have produced virtually no progress, with Belgrade resisting the growing international consensus that Kosovo will secede.

Albert Rohan, the U.N. envoy overseeing the talks, said yesterday the prospect of a negotiated deal is “increasingly slim,” raising the odds that an imposed settlement at year’s end may be in the works.

“We could talk for another 10 years and not change anything,” Mr. Rohan told reporters.

Nicholas Whyte, a Balkans analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said the “fundamental problem” facing Kosovo is the question of the Serbian-minority enclaves, most located in the province’s north and enjoying strong ties to hard-line elements in Belgrade.

While some form of independence for Kosovo now seems inevitable, he said, there is a danger Kosovo could become the next Cyprus, meaning it could become a functionally divided land with an ethnic enclave protected by a powerful neighbor. Hard-line nationalists in Serbia are resisting partition, and a final deal that goes to the U.N. Security Council must avoid a Russian veto.

“Disaster can be avoided, but there has to be much more outreach from the Albanian majority than we have seen to date,” Mr. Whyte said.

Mr. Rugova, a medical doctor, boasts one of the most potent names in Kosovo politics. His uncle is seen as the father of Kosovo independence and was the province’s first president when he succumbed to cancer at the beginning of the year. His death has set off a leadership scramble that is still being sorted out.

The younger Mr. Rugova said he founded his “Reforma” movement to invigorate the ruling party, and turned aside questions of whether he plans to run for office himself.

He said U.N. peacekeepers may have to stay in Kosovo for up to five years after independence, despite an improving security situation on the ground. He also predicted that relations with Belgrade can improve once independence is achieved.

“After that, we will all be living with a new reality,” he said. “We will have no other choice than to create good neighborly relations.”

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