EU foreign ministers to discuss future of Kosovo after key Serbian elections

What to do about the breakaway province of Kosovo is top of the agenda at EU foreign ministers talks' Monday, the day after Serbian elections that could decide whether the Balkan nation choses to seek closer ties with the rest of Europe or revert to its nationalist past.

The 27-nation bloc will look closely at results of Sunday's elections, hoping that pro-Western parties win and push ahead with democratic and economic reforms and fully cooperate with the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the EU presidency, and other EU officials said last week that stability and security in the Balkans is a priority, notably working closely with Belgrade to find a peaceful solution to Kosovo's status.

"These elections present an important opportunity for Serbia, to look ahead and fully embrace its European future," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said last week. He added the EU "hopes to see" a pro-EU, reform oriented government in Belgrade.

Monday's EU assessment also comes shortly before much-anticipated proposals by U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari on the future status of Kosovo. EU officials expect Ahtisaari to recommend limited independence for Kosovo, which has been under U.N. administration since 1999.

Diplomats said however they expect lengthy debates with Russia over Kosovo's future at the U.N. Security Council, which will make the final decision on the province's future. Moscow strongly backs Belgrade's claims that Kosovo should stay part of Serbia while Washington favors independence.

The EU itself is divided over Kosovo between countries that oppose any secession - including Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia - and those that have backed it, such as Britain, the Netherlands and others.

Belgrade has insisted that Kosovo must remain part of Serbia, albeit with wide-ranging autonomy. But ethnic Albanian politicians in the provincial capital, Pristina, are pushing for outright independence.

A move to declare Kosovo independent would have widespread international implications and would be viewed as a precedent in other independence-minded provinces or regions elsewhere in the world.

Separately, EU foreign ministers were to address the ongoing conflict in Darfur and Somalia and assess Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in the Middle East in their first meeting of the year.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was to debrief the EU ministers on his weekend trip to the region.

The ministers were also to discuss the launching of closer ties with Ukraine and how to implement U.N. sanctions against Iran.

A contentious plan to open trade ties with the internationally isolated Turkish Cypriot community in northern Cyprus was also on the agenda, after the EU decided in December to partially freeze entry talks with Turkey over its refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot goods and services.

[Source: The Associated Press, Brussels, Bel, 21Jan07]

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