Delegations from Kosovo and Serbia today showed some agreement but also significant differences on decentralizing the Albanian-majority Serbian province, which the United Nations has administered ever since the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) drove out Yugoslav troops in 1999 amid grave rights abuses in ethnic fighting.
The fourth round of direct talks between the two sides, held in Vienna under the auspices of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Envoy for the future status of Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, centred on the creation of new municipalities, particularly those with a Kosovo-Serb majority, and their boundaries.
“I am an optimist by nature; it doesn’t mean that I am naïve,” Mr. Ahtisaari’s deputy Albert Rohan, who chaired the talks, told a news briefing when asked how he felt the negotiations were progressing. “I think we have to be optimistic. We don’t only believe in the intelligence of people but also in the wisdom of people and therefore I am realistically optimistic.”
Decentralization is only one of many issues in the talks. Independence and autonomy are among options that have been mentioned for the province, where Albanians outnumber Serbs and others by 9 to 1. Serbia rejects independence and Kosovo's Serbs have been boycotting the province's provisional institutions.
Mr. Rohan said the delegations found “some range of agreement” on the issue of municipalities, but while the Kosovo side proposed three new municipalities and the extension of an existing one, the Serbians wanted 14 new ones and the extension of five existing municipalities.
“We have to continue to work with the two sides on these two proposals,” Mr. Rohan said, noting that the issue would no longer be discussed at the Vienna talks. “There are many open questions and we are going to resume the work directly with each side separately and try to get compromise solutions.”
To that purpose he will lead a delegation to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, on 16 May, and then go on to the Kosovo capital of Pristina on 18 May. The next direct talks in Vienna scheduled 23 May will focus on the protection of cultural and religious sites.
One of the complicating factors on decentralization is how to include possible return of scores of thousands of Serbian who fled earlier violence but have not yet come back. “On the one hand nobody wants to create ‘ghost municipalities’ in the hope that somebody may come,” Mr. Rohan said. “On the other hand, there is a very real possibility – and it is the hope of the international community – that the maximum of people will indeed return.”