Kosovo hopeful on deal with Serbia to end ethnic partition

PARIS Wed Mar 27, 2013 1:06pm EDT

Ivica Dacic, Serbian Prime Minster speaks with his Bosnian counterpart Vjekoslav Bevanda during a news conference after a meeting in Sarajevo, September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Ivica Dacic, Serbian Prime Minster speaks with his Bosnian counterpart Vjekoslav Bevanda during a news conference after a meeting in Sarajevo, September 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

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PARIS (Reuters) - Kosovo's foreign minister said on Wednesday he anticipated a breakthrough with Serbia when the two countries' prime ministers meet next week to discuss an end to the ethnic partition of the former Serbian province.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's 2008 secession, but is under pressure from the European Union to improve ties and help overcome a split between Kosovo's Albanian majority and a small Serb enclave in the north.

The two parties failed to reach an agreement on March 21 after lengthy talks between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci that were hosted by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels.

Talks are set to resume on April 2.

"This is a dialogue about the normalization of relations between two countries as separate and independent countries," Kosovo Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj told Reuters in an interview in Paris.

"I think we will have a breakthrough by April 2. We are working on that, but I think the reason why we didn't have a breakthrough is in Belgrade and not Pristina."

Ashton has been mediating talks between Dacic and Thaci since late last year, as the EU pushes to establish functional, neighborly relations between Serbia and Kosovo five years after the former province declared independence with the backing of the West.

The clock is now ticking towards a mid-April progress report from Ashton that will decide whether the EU launches membership talks with Serbia. That would represent a major milestone in the country's recovery from Yugoslavia's bloody collapse and a vital signal of stability to much-needed investors.

"I think that nobody in Brussels is interested in creating a Serbian Republic in the north of Kosovo," Hoxhaj said.

"Anybody who proposes that is against peace, security and stability in Kosovo and the region. It's a pretty useless approach to ask for something that will not happen."

Hoxhaj - in Paris to drum up investor interest and seek support for Kosovo's efforts to gain more international recognition - said that despite his optimism, Kosovo could not accept any kind of Serbian autonomy in the north.

"This is our red line, otherwise Kosovo would become a dysfunctional state," he said. "It would promote the partition and segregation of communities even within the Serb community.

He thought Belgrade would also begin dismantling what he called "illegal Serbian police and security" structures in the northern enclave that run contrary to U.N. resolutions.

The 2008 declaration of independence by majority-Albanian Kosovo from Serbia came almost a decade after NATO bombs wrested control of the territory from late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic to halt a brutal counter-insurgency war.

Serbia's nine-month-old coalition government, an alliance last in power under Milosevic, has offered to recognize the authority of Thaci's government over the Serb north in exchange for its autonomy.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said earlier this month the two sides were "never closer" to settling their differences after several rounds of EU-mediated talks.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Jason Webb)

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