Both Sides Hold Fast at Russia-EU Talks

BRDO PRI KRANJU, Slovenia -- Talks between Russia and the European Union on Wednesday left the two powers firmly entrenched on opposite sides of one of Europe's most sensitive issues: Kosovo's plan to declare independence from Serbia.

Despite their disagreement over the territory's fate, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated Moscow would not seek to punish the EU for recognizing Kosovo's independence, something most EU nations have said they would do.

Russia "does not have among its political instruments any measures that are punishing anyone," Lavrov told reporters after his meeting with senior EU officials in Slovenia.

"We must do everything to prevent negative developments, and, as long as no fatal decisions are made, we will continue our contacts" with the EU, he said.

Russia firmly supports Serbia's desire to retain Kosovo, even though Belgrade has not had formal control over the province since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign ended its crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders could declare their independence as early as Sunday.

Before Wednesday's meeting, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner said the status quo in Kosovo was no longer sustainable. "At a certain point, there comes a moment when a decision has to be made. This moment has come."

Lavrov repeated Russia's view that a unilateral declaration of independence would be a mistake.

"We were speaking as friends, frankly, trying to understand to the maximum extent each other's position," Lavrov said of his talks with EU officials. "The differences were not overcome."

Lavrov was also critical of the EU's plan to send an 1,800-strong mission to Kosovo to replace the UN force there -- a deployment Serbia opposes, seeing it as a prelude to Kosovo independence.

"Any operation, any mission ... should be based upon a decision of the UN Security Council," Lavrov said. "We are guided by that principle. We hope that our European Union friends are guided by the same" principle.

Senior EU diplomats said Wednesday that a final decision to deploy the mission will most likely come at an EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday, possibly even earlier.

The EU mission will deploy over four months, providing manpower and expertise in security, legal issues, customs matters and good governance.

The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the EU had a valid legal basis under international law to help Kosovo achieve statehood.

Lavrov also asserted that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership was "instructed from abroad" not to accept compromises in negotiations with Belgrade -- which eventually failed in December -- but to pursue independence.

A senior Serbian official said this week that his government had information that Kosovo would declare independence on Sunday. Some Western diplomats believe it could be Monday, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians did not reveal the date, but said it was a "done deal."