By NICHOLAS WOOD
Published: July 25, 2006
THE NEW YORK TIMES
VIENNA, July 24, 2006 – Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders met here on Monday to discuss the future of Kosovo, but after six months of apparently fruitless negotiations by lesser officials, there was little sign of even the smallest compromise.
Kosovo, a province of Serbia, has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign wrested it from Serbian control. The bombing followed a violent crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in the province.
The talks are being held with the intention of returning Kosovo to local governance, resolving one of the region’s most deep-rooted conflicts. But the divide is enormous: the ethnic Albanians, who are the majority in Kosovo, want it to become an independent state, and the Serbs want the region re-integrated into Serbia.
The five Western governments that are the main sponsors of the talks said they were determined to impose a solution, if necessary.
Speaking at a news conference after the one-day meeting, Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland who is the United Nations mediator in charge of the process, said there had no been no progress. “I would be lying if I were to say so,” he said.
But he stressed that the main purpose of the meeting had been for both sides to explain their positions before future negotiations.
So far this year, the teams from both sides have sought common ground on how to govern Kosovo without considering the critical issue of sovereignty.
The meeting on Monday brought President Boris Tadic of Serbia and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica face to face with their Kosovo Albanian counterparts, Fatmir Sejdiu and Agim Ceku, for the first time in an official setting.
The meeting put the Serbian leaders in the awkward position of speaking with former members of the rebel group that fought the Serbian forces in 1999, the Kosovo Liberation Army, including Mr. Ceku.
Serbian politicians accuse him of being a war criminal. But while the government troops killed and forced ethnic Albanian residents from their homes in 1999, the major violence and intimidation in recent years has been against the Serbian minority.
Unless an agreement takes form by the autumn, diplomats here expect the United Nations to start work on an agreement that could be imposed, one likely to involve some form of independent state, they say.
Representatives on both sides appeared stiff on Monday as they were led to opposite sides of a U-shaped table in a meeting room in the Niederösterreich Palace.
Within hours, each team was briefing journalists, who were not permitted to attend the talks, on what they said was the failure of the opposing group to engage properly in the process.
Mr. Kostunica’s delegation left the palace before a scheduled lunch at which Albanian and Serbian officials were to sit side by side, though Mr. Tadic remained.
With both sets of politicians under substantial pressure from their constituents not to be seen as giving in to the other, Monday’s process appeared to be more about restating entrenched positions than engaging in negotiations.
Mr. Sejdiu said the ethnic Albanians’ desire for an independent Kosovo was “the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of our position.”
Mr. Kostunica warned that it was “not possible to find a even a single precedent in European history which could be used as the argument to deprive Serbia of 15 percent of its territory.”
Despite the rigid positions taken by both sides, there is a sense here of this being a significant moment, although one induced by international officials. Mr. Ahtisaari confirmed that he had asked the delegates responsible for the earlier rounds of talks to cancel their summer vacations and continue working in August.
At the same time the Contact Group — made up of France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and Russia — issued a statement urging both sides to come to a negotiated settlement by the end of the year. If all attempts at negotiations fail, the United Nations Security Council is likely to draw up a resolution that imposes a solution on both sides, United Nations officials said. “The process must be brought to a close,” the Contact Group’s announcement read.