The United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari has arrived in Kosovo for the first phase of shuttle diplomacy aimed at agreeing the final status of the disputed Balkan province.
The scale of the task facing the former Finnish president was underlined by the Serbian Prime Minister, who ruled out independence for the UN-run province in a speech timed to coincide with Mr Ahtisaari's arrival.
Vojislav Kostunica said that the 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo should be given wide autonomy within the Serbian federation but warned that granting them full independence on sovereign Serbian land would "undermine the foundations of the world order".
Pristina is just the first leg of Mr Ahtisaari's visit to the region. After two days of talks with the Kosovan negotiating team, President Ibrahim Rugova and Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi, he is due in Belgrade tomorrow to meet the Serbian leaders. Between them, the parties must thrash out a deal to decide whether the breakaway Serbian province and its two million ethnic Albanian inhabitants should gain independence.
Mr Ahtisaari said his first intention was to "listen to the parties and collect impressions". But diplomatic sources say the former premier is confident he can get the job done.
Unlike his predecessors, the Finn has a strong mandate, which includes detailed conditions for both sides. No party has the power of veto over any decisions or documents discussed in the talks, and parties can not leave the talks once they are underway. If one of them refuses to sign any of the proposed documents and abandons the talks, this will be regarded as acceptance of the documents under discussion.
Mr Ahtisaari, 68, is no stranger to tough negotiations with Serbs. Together with the Russian envoy, Victor Chernomyrdin, he brokered the deal with Slobodan Milosevic on the withdrawal of the latter's security forces from Kosovo in 1999. The deal ended an 11-week Nato bombing campaign aimed at stopping the Milosevic regime's repression of ethnic Albanians in the province. Sources at the historic negotiations said that Mr Milosevic only capitulated after Mr Ahtisaari pointed to the table between them and told him the bombs would keep falling until Serbia was equally flat.
Since 1999, Kosovo has been under UN administration, working with a locally elected assembly. Nato-led peacekeepers remain in the province.
Five years after the ousting of Milosevic, giving up on Kosovo remains politically unpalatable in Belgrade, as witnessed by a fiery parliamentary session yesterday. "Today we decide on Serbia and on ourselves," Mr Kostunica told MPs. Serbia was ready for compromise, but not for any "abduction of its territory", he added. Belgrade will concede autonomy but not independence, citing historical ties to an area it claims as the cradle of the medieval Serbian state.
Belgrade is also concerned that carving a new state out of its recognised borders would set a dangerous precedent in international law. Most analysts have called on Serbia to recognise the reality on the ground, where control over Kosovo was effectively lost in 1999. Fewer than 100,000 Serbs still live there; a similar number fled in 1999, fearing reprisals by ethnic Albanians.