- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The United States has assured Russia that Washington’s support for Kosovo’s eventual independence from Serbia does not mean it will back the breakaway aspirations of Russian autonomous regions in the Caucasus, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

Moscow, in sympathy with Belgrade, has been reluctant to join American and European endorsements of a plan proposed by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari that would lead to independence for Kosovo in all but name.

“I have talked very often to the Russians, first of all, that Kosovo is a precedent for nothing, which is a very important point to make,” Miss Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in reference to Moscow’s fear that Kosovo’s independence might encourage separatist forces in Russian regions such as Chechnya and North Ossetia.

“We need to recognize that the longer this drags out, the more likely we are to have a breakdown in order in Kosovo itself,” the secretary said during testimony on President Bush’s fiscal 2008 foreign affairs budget proposal. “We believe that the Ahtisaari plan deserves support.”

Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since the 1999 NATO war with Serbia over President Slobodan Milosevic’s policies in the province, which led to “ethnic cleansing” targeting Kosovo’s majority Albanian population.

Mr. Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, heads a yearlong process whose last phase is a round of talks with Serbs and Kosovo’s leaders. He has invited both sides to meet in Vienna, Austria, next week.

But Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica asked yesterday for a 10-day delay to convene the country’s new parliament elected last month. He said the legislature must choose a new Kosovo negotiating team to guarantee its credibility.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, met with Mr. Kostunica in Belgrade yesterday and said a brief delay would be acceptable.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kostunica indicated that Serbia will not agree to independence for Kosovo.

“Serbia will be constructive, but it will also be unbending in its efforts to ensure respect … for its territorial integrity,” he said at a press conference.

Russia, a traditional Serbian ally whose position is that a solution should not be imposed on Serbia, has said that Belgrade should be “constructive.”

Miss Rice noted NATO’s inclusion of Serbia in its Partnership for Peace program, which could lead to eventual membership in the alliance.

“We don’t want a revanchist and angry Serbia,” she said. “So we are working with our European allies to make sure that Serbia understands that it belongs in Europe.”

But Kosovar Albanians have warned that their patience is running out. They blame the eight-year political limbo for a stagnant economy and an unemployment rate of 50 percent.

Both Miss Rice and Mr. Solana urged Kosovo to step up to the task of building democratic institutions.

“The Kosovars have a responsibility, too, to protect minority rights, to make certain that Serbs feel that they can really live there,” Miss Rice said. “We are having equally difficult and tough, sometimes, discussions with the Kosovo Albanians about their responsibilities.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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