Kosovo will set to declare independence from Serbia next week, the Serbian government claimed today, stoking fears of renewed instability in the region.
The Serbian minister for Kosovo said his government has information that the province will declare independence on February 17.
Slobodan Samardzic said in a statement that "the government of Serbia is receiving relevant information" that Kosovo’s government will "illegally declare the unilateral independence of Kosovo on Sunday February 17".
Samardzic’s statement was issued after a meeting with a senior EU official, Stefan Lehne, who was in Belgrade to clarify EU plans for a European policing and administrative mission to Kosovo.
Serbia has rejected the EU mission, saying it would be a prelude to secession. Samardzic said Serbia would not sign any cooperation agreement with the EU, arguing it would amount to "the signature for the independence of Kosovo".
Kosovo has been under UN administration since Nato expelled Serbian forces with a bombing campaign in 1999. Ethnic Albanians, who form 90% of the province’s population of 1.9 million, want independence.
Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, said about 100 countries were ready to recognize the province’s independence as soon as it is declared. "We will have a powerful and massive recognition," he told a news conference.
Thaci was speaking after his weekly meeting with Joachim Ruecker, head of the UN’s Kosovo mission. Thaci did not name any countries or specify when he would declare independence.
Some European diplomats fear an independent Kosovo would mean a return to instability in the Balkans.
Serbia has warned the west of serious consequences to secession, suggesting that Kosovo could be partitioned, as Serbs in the north of the province align themselves with Bosnian Serbs seeking independence, creating a Serbian republic, or "Republika Srpska", in Bosnia.
The Serbian government has ruled out the threat of military action against Kosovo, but has warned of destabilization, as "volunteers" – a euphemism for paramilitaries – from Serbia proper would go to "help" the Kosovo Serbs.
Pro-western politicians in Belgrade who oppose Kosovo’s independence have raised the prospect of Serbia lurching further to the right as nationalist politicians seek a closer alliance with Russia.
This week, Serbia’s nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, blocked the signing of a pact between Belgrade and the EU in an attempt to delay what seems like Kosovo’s inevitable secession. The EU has been trying to soften the blow by promising Belgrade EU membership.
Senior EU officials are furious that Kostunica refuses to allow pro-European members of his government to travel to Brussels to sign a pact that would lead to trade and travel liberalization and encourage Serbia’s accession to the EU, which is supported by most Serbs.
Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, said Kostunica had broken a promise to him, and said that politicians in Belgrade were filing for divorce between Serbia and the EU before they had even been married.