The Security Council today endorsed the start of talks on the future status of ethnically-divided Kosovo, with the United Nations administrator of the Serbian province, which the world body has run for the past six years, calling it a very historic day.
"The Council offers its full support to this political process which would determine Kosovo's Future status and further reaffirms its commitment to the objective of a multi-ethnic and democratic Kosovo which must reinforce regional stability," the Council said in a presidential statement on the province where ethnic Albanians outnumber others, mainly Serbs, by about nine to one.
"The Security Council agrees… that notwithstanding the challenges they face in Kosovo and the wider region the time has come to move to the next phase of the political process," the statement, read by Council President for October, Ambassador Mihnea Ioan Motoc of Romania, added after a briefing by Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative for Kosovo, Søren Jessen-Petersen.
Just how difficult those challenges could be in the talks, which could include the options of independence or autonomy, was underscored by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica who told the Council earlier today that any solution must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia and Montenegro as an internationally recognized State.
The UN has run Kosovo since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) drove out Yugoslav troops amid grave human rights abuses in fighting between Albanians and Serbs in 1999.
Mr. Jessen-Petersen also stressed the challenges lying ahead. "We all know that the positions of Belgrade and Pristina on the issue of Kosovo's status are far apart," he said referring to the capitals of Serbia and Kosovo.
The Council welcomed Mr. Annan readiness to appoint a special envoy to lead the future status process. The Secretary-General told reporters he would likely appoint former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who has most recently served as his Special Envoy for the Humanitarian Crisis in the Horn of Africa.
The 15-member body stressed the need for "undiminished energy" in meeting the so-called Standards, a series of goals which include protecting minorities, establishing democracy, decentralization and creating the necessary conditions to allow a sustainable return of Serbs who fled. It urged the authorities in Belgrade to do their utmost to facilitate the future status process and to engage constructively.
Mr. Jessen-Petersen stressed that the process offers an opportunity for the Kosovo Albanian leadership "to show true commitment and take more decisive steps towards building the kind of multi-ethnic, democratic, and tolerant society that will undoubtedly bring them closer to realizing their dreams and goals when status is decided."
He cited six priority areas for action starting with the need to reassure the Serbs by improving the living conditions of those now in Kosovo and fostering the sustainable returns of those still displaced. "I don't expect major returns before status is clarified, but to reassure Kosovo Serbs of their future and to promote returns we need a constructive engagement of Belgrade and the direct involvement of the Kosovo Serbs," he said.
The other priorities are: a comprehensive reform of local government, an issue of crucial importance to minorities; establishing a transparent and non-politicized security apparatus; capacity building to ensure that Kosovo's institutions can take on their responsibilities; restructuring the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK); and maintaining a safe and secure environment.
"The security environment in Kosovo is at the moment stable, but isolated recent incidents remind us that, with the difficult status process about to begin, there is no place for complacency," he declared. "That process, and possibly provocations from all sides, will undoubtedly test our ability to maintain the secure environment that has, by and large, prevailed in Kosovo during the last 18 months."
Calling the latest development the end-game after six and a half years of a holding operation, Mr. Jessen-Petersen told reporters afterwards this was a very historic day. "The next months will be very difficult, we will be tested on the ground in Kosovo." But he added: "Let us just for one moment stop off and welcome the fact that the Security Council has just adopted a historic statement."
Also addressing Council members was Kai Eide, the Secretary-General's former Special Envoy for the Comprehensive Review of Kosovo, who introduced the report on his work.
Mr. Eide repeated his long-standing view that there would never be a good moment for addressing Kosovo's future status, and said both parties remain diametrically opposed with very little common ground. While prospects for reconciliation are modest, he supported the commencement of a process to determine future status, because it was important to keep the political process from stagnating.