U.N. envoy advises independence for Kosovo

A Serbian nationalist displays a Serbian flag during a protest in Belgrade's Republic square on Saturday, marking the eighth anniversary of the start of the NATO air campaign against Serbia that led to U.N. protection for Kosovo.Srdjan Ilic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Independence is the only viable option for Kosovo, according to the special U.N. envoy who on Monday submitted a report and a proposal on the province's future to the Security Council.

The Security Council will make the final decision on Kosovo following the proposal submitted by envoy Martti Ahtisaari, who mediated yearlong talks between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

"Upon careful consideration of Kosovo's recent history, the realities of Kosovo today, and taking into account negotiations with the parties, I have come to the conclusion that the only viable option for Kosovo is independence, to be supervised for an initial period by the international community," Ahtisaari said in a 3 1/2-page introductory report that accompanied the proposal to the council, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of the official release.

The text of the report is the first time that Ahtisaari has explicitly mentioned independence in a document dealing with province's future.

In his initial proposal, Ahtisaari did not use the word "independence," but stated that he would make his position clear when the plan is submitted to the U.N. Security Council. That plan grants the province its own constitution, flag, anthem and army, as well as rights to minority Serbs to run their daily affairs.

Diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York said the Security Council would likely have the first formal discussion on the report April 3.

U.N. run since 1999
Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians and 1,000 Serbs were killed during the 1998-1999 war.

The U.N. plan is an attempt to resolve the final major dispute remaining after Yugoslavia's bloody 1990s breakup.

Stressing the urgency of the issue, Ahtisaari said that allowing the territory's status to remain ambiguous was a destabilizing factor.

"Independence is the best safeguard against this risk," he wrote. "It is also the best chance for a sustainable long-term partnership between Kosovo and Serbia."

The envoy presented his proposal to regional leaders in February. Ethnic Albanians supported the plan, while Serbian officials, opposed to the province's secession, rejected it, saying it grants Kosovo de-facto independence.

"A return of Serbian rule over Kosovo would not be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the people of Kosovo," Ahtisaari wrote in his report. "Belgrade could not regain its authority without provoking violent opposition. Autonomy of Kosovo within the borders of Serbia _ however notional such autonomy may be _ is simply not tenable."

In his accompanying report, Ahtisaari also said that continued international administration was not sustainable.

"Only in an independent Kosovo will its democratic institutions be fully responsible and accountable for their actions. This will be crucial to ensure respect for the rule of law and effective protection of minorities," the envoy said.

Ahtisaari noted that Kosovo's Serb community continued to face difficult living conditions.

After the war, Kosovo's Serb minority was targeted in revenge attacks and about 200,000 of them were forced to flee the province.

'Supervised and supported' independence
"I therefore propose that the exercise of Kosovo's independence ... be supervised and supported for an initial period by international civilian and military presences," he wrote. "Their powers should be strong — but focused — in critical areas such as community rights, decentralization, the protection of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the rule of law."

Ahtisaari said some international intervention is still needed because Kosovo, on its own, has a limited ability to protect minorities, develop democratic institutions and spur economic recovery and social reconciliation.

The international community's role, he said, should come to end only once Kosovo's authorities have implemented certain measures in his settlement proposal. He did not elaborate.

Ahtisaari's plan faces an uncertain future in the Security Council, which is split on the issue. Russia supports Serbia, while the United States and the European Union back the U.N. plan.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the plan would "give the Kosovars a way forward toward independence" and ensure the minority rights of the Serbs.

"Finally after eight years the people of Kosovo are going to know where their future lies and what their status shall be, and the United States does support the proposal ... for supervised independence for Kosovo," Burns said in Brussels.

Burns said he expected "five, six, seven weeks of intensive consultations" between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, Serb leaders and the U.N. Security Council to find "the best resolution" to end the question of the disputed province's final status. He expected a decision on Kosovo's status "in the month of April or May."

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have said granting statehood to Kosovo could set a precedent for separatist regions in former Soviet republics, such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from control of the central government in Georgia in wars in the 1990s.

A Russian diplomat at the U.N. said Monday the mission was still studying the report and had no immediate comment on it. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of he was not authorized to address the media, said council members may hold informal talks on the proposal as early as Tuesday.

In his conclusion, Ahtisaari asserted that "Kosovo is a unique case that demands a unique solution."

"It does not create a precedent for other unresolved conflicts," he wrote.