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Swiss offer help with Kosovo talks

Calmy-Rey met the president of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, in Pristina in August

(Keystone)

As a United Nations envoy arrives in Kosovo for preliminary talks on the province's future, Switzerland says it is ready to "pursue the role" of facilitator.

But the Swiss authorities warn that the negotiations are likely to be long and complicated and that compromise will be "essential from all sides".

Martti Ahtisaari, a special envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, arrived in Kosovo on Monday to help determine whether the province should be given independence or remain part of Serbia and Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia.

Kosovo has been under United Nations and Nato administration since a 78-day Nato-led air war halted a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanians in 1999.

Tensions remain high, with local ethnic Albanians demanding independence, a move rejected by the Serbian government in Belgrade.

Talk of independence

Last May the Swiss government chose a UN Security Council debate in New York to make a public statement in favour of a form of independence in Kosovo.

The remarks by Switzerland's ambassador to the UN, Peter Maurer, caused a stir in diplomatic circles and led to a rebuke from Belgrade when Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey made an official visit to Serbia in June.

Soon afterwards, and unperturbed by the escalating diplomatic row between Bern and Belgrade, Calmy-Rey used a high-profile trip to Kosovo to shore up international support for the idea of "formal independence" for the province.

Senior Swiss diplomat Jean-Jacques de Dardel told swissinfo that the government's view had not changed since then.

"As stated in the Security Council debate in May, we clearly think that maintaining the status quo any longer would considerably increase the risk of a destabilisation [not just] of Kosovo but also of its neighbouring countries," he said.

"In these circumstances, the most realistic solution is that Kosovo should, in the long term, be given formal independence."

Compromise required

But the diplomat added that any agreement on the status question would have to be "negotiated with and accepted by all parties concerned" and that compromise was "essential and will have to be made by all sides".

He also rejected accusations that Switzerland was playing with fire by endorsing a solution for Kosovo before the start of status talks.

"Our important stakes in the region, where we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars for peace and stability, as well as the close human contacts between Switzerland and Kosovo, justify in our view the need to have our own position," he said.

"Switzerland has been active for some years in supporting a dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. We are ready to pursue this role further as the parties involved see fit."

Negotiations are expected to last a year and observers agree that the talks will most likely conclude with a deal for some form of independence – albeit with a continuing role for international peacekeepers.

"We are heading towards independence for Kosovo," observed Andre Liebich, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.

Human rights

De Dardel said Switzerland did not expect the international community to compromise when it comes to ensuring human rights are guaranteed to all minority groups living in the province.

"We do not intend to reduce our support for the improvement of the living conditions of each of the minorities in Kosovo. Nor will we accept half measures in the application of standards... that guarantee equal rights and opportunities to all the people [who live there]."

For his part, Ahtisaari has remained tight-lipped on the agenda and timeframe for the negotiations, saying only that it was up to the parties involved to decide "how fast or slowly we will move".

The former Finnish president's arrival in Pristina was overshadowed by threats from a Kosovo Albanian militant group to attack the provincial capital ahead of the start of the UN-sponsored status talks.

"It is very likely that the city of Pristina... will be the target of our independence forces starting on Wednesday," read a statement reported by local media.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

Swiss diplomat Jean-Jacques de Dardel was born in 1954 and obtained a degree in economics from Geneva University.
He joined the Swiss foreign ministry in 1981 after completing a doctorate in political science at Geneva's Graduate Institute of International Studies.
In 2004 he was put in charge of Political Affairs Division 1 at the foreign ministry (responsible for Europe, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).

end of infobox

In brief

Talks on the future status of Kosovo are expected to last at least a year.

Experts agree that a form of independence for the province is the most likely outcome of the negotiations.

In August, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said the reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia and Montenegro was neither desirable nor realistic.

She added that the legal status of the province had to be negotiated with all the parties involved, including Serbia and Montenegro, the UN and the European Union.

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