updated 2/2/2007 6:40:25 PM ET 2007-02-02T23:40:25

Kosovo took its first tentative steps on the road to becoming what would look very much like a sovereign nation Friday after a U.N. envoy unveiled a blueprint for the future of the tense, ethnically divided Balkan province.

The plan’s architect, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, did not explicitly mention Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in the proposal he presented to Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders.

But his 58-page roadmap spelled out conditions for internationally supervised self-rule — complete with the trappings of nationhood, including a flag, anthem, army and constitution and the right to apply for membership in international organizations. It envisions a Kosovo “governing itself democratically and with full respect for the rule of law.”

Both Serbia’s pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, and its nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, immediately rejected the plan and reasserted the country’s claims to Kosovo as the heart of the ancient Serb homeland.

“I told Mr. Ahtisaari that Serbia and I, as its president, will never accept Kosovo’s independence,” Tadic declared in a statement hours after meeting with the envoy in Belgrade. Kostunica denounced the plan as “illegitimate.”

In Pristina, Kosovo’s provincial capital, President Fatmir Sejdiu said he and other leaders expected Kosovo to become an independent state soon, and pledged to guarantee the rights and security of its small 100,000-member Serb minority.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority has long pressed for independence and fought a bloody war with Serbia in the late 1990s. Yet the mood was muted in the province Friday.

“It’s good, but we’re a bit reserved,” said Lutfi Maloku, 40, an ethnic Albanian technician. “It wasn’t called independence and it allows for the Serb minority, which accounts for 5 percent, to hold lots of power.”

Kosovo’s prime minister, Agim Ceku, was also disappointed by some aspects of the plan. “What Ahtisaari described is a sovereign state, an independent state,” he said. “However, this document does not entail all our expectations, all our demands, what belongs to us. We will do everything so that his final document at the Security Council reflects in its entirety the will of Kosovo’s people.”

Describing his proposal as a draft subject to change, Ahtisaari said he would invite the rival sides to meet again on Feb. 13 for negotiations. He said he hoped to present a package to the U.N. Security Council — which will have the final say on Kosovo’s future status — by the end of March.

Approval there would set the stage for the U.S. and other countries to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence. But there are concerns the plan may, instead, trigger a showdown between the United States — long an advocate of an independent Kosovo — and Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia. Russia is one of five permanent Security Council members which hold veto power.

Kostunica has threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes Kosovo as an independent state.

Ahtisaari, acknowledging that both sides remain far apart, conceded it could be difficult to come up with a settlement both sides could accept. “I think that might require so much time that I don’t think I have years in my life to achieve (it),” he said.

His remark seemed to signal that the Security Council could wind up imposing some kind of settlement.

The European Union called on both the Serbs and ethnic Albanians to be ready to compromise on the issue of Kosovo’s future. “Both sides must demonstrate responsibility, flexibility and a recognition of the need for realistic compromised-based solutions,” the EU said in a statement.

The United States praised the plan as “fair and balanced,” and also called on both sides to work toward a settlement.

Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, when NATO airstrikes stopped Serbia’s crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanian rebels. Nearly 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in the Serbian onslaught, and nearly 1 million were forced to flee their homes.

Ahtisaari’s plan would protect Serbian Orthodox Church sites and the Serbian language in the province. Ethnic Albanians, secular Muslims, account for 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million population.

The plan would also grant the 200,000 Serbs who fled Kosovo after the war in the wake of revenge attacks by Albanians “the right to return and reclaim their property and personal possessions.”

For Serbs, the plan outlines “a high degree of control” over their own affairs by granting them six new Serb-administered municipalities and a greater voice in the higher education and health systems. Serbs also would be granted “extensive municipal autonomy in financial matters, including the ability to accept transparent funding from Serbia.”

The plan recommends the establishment of an international representative — similar to the office set up in Bosnia after that country’s bloody 1992-95 war — to oversee day-to-day affairs.

It also includes provisions for a 2,500-member Kosovo security force which would be overseen by NATO, which now maintains 16,500 peacekeepers in the province.

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