By David R. Sands
An international mediator yesterday formally recommended putting the Serbian province of Kosovo on the fast track to independence, provoking a furious reaction from Belgrade.
As expected, U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari's blueprint called for giving the overwhelmingly Albanian province all the trappings of statehood, including a flag, a constitution, an elected government, an army and the right to join international institutions such as the World Bank.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica refused even to meet with Mr. Ahtisaari and denounced the proposal as "illegitimate." Ultranationalist Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic vowed Serbia would fight to reclaim what he called "occupied territory."
The 58-page Ahtisaari plan, outlined in separate briefings in Belgrade and the Kosovo capital of Pristina yesterday, does not mention the word "independence," and calls for EU and NATO security forces to stay in Kosovo for an unspecified time. But Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, who overwhelmingly favor breaking with Serbia, said the impact of the plan was unmistakable.
"We are convinced that this process will soon lead to Kosovo becoming an independent state," Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu told Serbian state television yesterday.
The United States and Europe quickly endorsed the Ahtisaari plan, issued after a year of negotiations between Serbs and Kosovar leaders failed to produce a compromise.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the envoy's plan "fair and balanced," adding, "It is a blueprint for a stable, prosperous and multiethnic Kosovo."
But Western diplomats acknowledge that hard bargaining remains. Russia, Serbia's traditional ally, has said it would not back any plan rejected by Belgrade.
Kosovo has been in political limbo since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign drove the troops of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic from the province. Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up about 90 percent of the province's 2 million people, vowed never again to link with Serbia after Mr. Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" campaign against separatist rebel groups.
But Serbs have deep historic and religious links to Kosovo, which many consider the cradle of Serbian culture. Mr. Ahtisaari's plan calls for extensive protections and political autonomy for the 100,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo.
The envoy's plan calls for a 120-day transition period from the current U.N.-run administration to a Kosovo-run government, with municipal and general elections for the province's new administration within nine months.
Mr. Ahtisaari, a former Finnish prime minister, said he would conduct one last round of talks with both sides before presenting his plan to the U.N. Security Council -- where Russia has a veto. He said he rejected suggestions he delay his recommendations while Serbian leaders try to form a new government following inconclusive elections Jan. 21.
"Whether it's now or a little bit later, the same people would be on either side of the table," he told reporters in Belgrade.
But even moderate, pro-Western Serbian politicians such as President Boris Tadic were already lining up in opposition to the loss of Kosovo.
"Neither Serbia nor I, as its president, will ever accept the independence of Kosovo," Mr. Tadic said.
And Serb Orthodox Bishop Artemije, the spiritual leader of Kosovo's Serb community, warned that forcing Belgrade to give up Kosovo would only fuel ethnic tensions that have long plagued the region.
"If the international community imposes a solution, it will not bring peace and stability to the region but rather it will destabilize the region," the bishop told the Reuters news agency.