November 25, 2007 / 10:44 AM / 10 years ago

Serbs prepare rude reception for independent Kosovo

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia begins final talks on Kosovo on Monday knowing it has failed to persuade a significant number of European Union member states to oppose independence for the breakaway province.

There is also virtually no hope of an 11th hour compromise in the two and a half days of talks with Kosovo Albanian leaders, due to take place in a spa town near Vienna.

Instead, Serbia is now focused on what to do when they declare independence, probably in February, with Western recognition within weeks. Some analysts expect a raft of obstructive measures such as protests and road blocks.

"All of Serbia needs to be united and show that for us it is illegal and that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on Saturday.

He said unilateral decisions by Kosovo Albanians would be annulled and "Kosovo Serbs will always be Serbian citizens" -- an indication Serbia would try to keep the Serb-held north.

"American or any other recognition of unilateral independence cannot turn an unlawful situation into something normal," the prime minister told Tanjug state news agency.

Kosovo has waited eight years for its future status to be decided since NATO military intervention and its handover to U.N. control in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing by Serb forces under the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.

Rude Reception

The pendulum has swung more unpredictably than the West expected in the lengthy diplomatic tug-of-war that began some two years ago, with U.N. mediated talks that got nowhere.

When envoy Martti Ahtisaari of Finland proposed EU-supervised independence as the only viable solution, the West assumed it needed only to persuade Serbia to acquiesce without a big fight, so all sides had a soft-landing.

But Serbia enlisted the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose veto threat at the U.N. Security Council scuppered the Ahtisaari plan, to Kostunica's satisfaction.

In the ensuing months it looked as if dire Serb warnings of long-term chaos in the Balkans were unsettling the EU. At least a half dozen members were against independence, and even all-important Germany was said to be wobbling.

But the United States did not waver, infuriating Kostunica and facing down Russia by repeating that "the Ahtisaari plan is the best option if the two sides cannot reach an agreement".

The EU has now rallied. Only Cyprus and Greece remain opposed, EU diplomats say. The rest of the 27-member bloc is braced to accept the EU's new role in an independent Kosovo.

President Boris Tadic, whose more moderate voice has been drowned out by Kostunica, says Serbia "will use all legal and political means" against a "hostile" act. Deputy premier Bozidar Djelic says ministries are getting "ready for the blackest scenario".

This will not mean war, political and military analysts agree. But tensions will rise and violence cannot be ruled out.

One reaction could be the setting up of "Serbian-controlled areas in Kosovo ... similar to those set up in Bosnia and Croatia 16 years ago", says former U.S. ambassador William Montgomery, now a commentator.

He says "volunteers" may go to help Kosovo Serbs and thinks Belgrade will say "it had nothing to do with it". There will be protests and a bid to downgrade Serbia's ties with the West.

Roads to Kosovo may be closed to non-Serb traffic and transit agreements with Kosovo's 16,000 strong NATO-led peacekeeping force may be stalled, Montgomery says. Serbia may also consider interrupting electricity supplies to Kosovo.

"As these events unfold, the potential for violence and pressure for additional measures will be very high. Relations with the United States and the EU will deteriorate sharply."

Editing by Alison Williams

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