UN plan for Kosovo promises independence, with strings

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Eight years after Nato's bombing campaign drove Serb forces from its borders, Kosovo was yesterday given virtual independence and most of the trappings of a nation state in an official blueprint for its future.

Under a United Nations plan that is certain to stir fierce passions in Serbia, Kosovo would have the right to make treaties and apply for membership of international organisations such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It would also take on its share of the economic assets and debts that once belonged to the former Yugoslavia and Serbia.

However as proposals were unveiled behind closed doors in Vienna, Serbia's main ally, Russia, made clear its scepticism, pressing for a delay in discussions to allow the Serbs to form a new government and study the plans.

Technically still part of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the UN since the Nato bombing campaign of 1999 forced Slobodan Milosevic's forces out of the province. Since then the ethnic Albanian population, which forms the majority, have pressed for independence.

Yesterday the UN envoy, former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, outlined his proposals to the six-member contact group of major powers made up of European governments, Russia and the US. Mr Ahtisaari plans to show them to political leaders in Belgrade and Pristina on 2 February.

The deal offers some concessions to Serbia, which considers Kosovo to be the birthplace of its nation. Under the plans Belgrade could finance Serb areas, providing the money goes through Pristina. The remaining 175,000 Serbs in Kosovo would gain self-government, considerable control over the running of local police, and the right to certain direct links with Belgrade. There would also be protection zones around many centuries-old Serb Orthodox religious sites.

With the exception of Russia, members of the contact group gave yesterday's announcement a cautious welcome. France's Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said that the Ahtisaari proposals "go in the right direction", adding: "Given the Serb political constellation, it is entirely necessary to take into account the status of the Serb minority in Kosovo." However, Moscow's scepticism could still destroy the plan because, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia could veto the package of measures.

One European official argued: "I don't think Russia will make it easy in the Security Council. No one is under any illusions about that. The real question is how much they have at stake. Their main issue is that they do not want Kosovo to set a precedent for other areas, particularly in the Caucasus. But we have always said that this was a unique case."

Mr Ahtisaari drafted his plan after more than a year of shuttle diplomacy and fruitless Serb-Albanian talks. If Russia insists on waiting for the formation of a new government in Belgrade this could mean a delay of weeks or months. Last weekend's general election in Serbia failed to produce a clear majority and parties were preparing for lengthy coalition talks.

The ultra-nationalist Radical Party won 28 per cent of the vote but could find no partner that would give it a majority. The pro-Western Democratic Party came second and wants a deal with the party of moderate nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and a smaller liberal party. None of the key players in Serbia backs independence for Kosovo.