Serbia drops UN challenge to Kosovo independence

Volte-face comes hours before general assembly due to debate Belgrade's demand seeking to invalidate Kosovo's secession

Serbia bowed to intense European and US pressure today by dropping a challenge to Kosovo's independence at the United Nations, clearing the way for settlement talks between Belgrade and the Kosovo Albanian leadership.

President Boris Tadic of Serbia announced the volte-face tonight, hours before the UN general assembly had been due to debate a demand from Belgrade seeking to reverse, question or invalidate Kosovo's independence. He stressed that the shift did not mean Serbian recognition of Kosovan statehood.

Serbia would have been isolated in Europe had it pressed ahead, setting back its hopes of integration with the west. Diplomatic schemes to kickstart talks between Belgrade and Priština to resolve the dispute would have been shredded.

Instead, diplomats and officials in Brussels were guardedly optimistic that the deal could transform prospects for accommodation between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians in two separate Balkan states.

The U-turn marked a success for Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, who had spent the past two days pressing Tadic to agree on a "last-chance" formula acceptable to the rest of Europe. He was told a refusal would leave Serbia at loggerheads with the EU, which it is keen to join. Washington, notably the vice-president, Joe Biden, reinforced the message.

Kosovo seceded from Serbia two years ago after decades of conflict. In July Serbia lost a case at the international court of justice, which ruled the secession did not breach international law.

Until today, the Serbian text in New York asked the UN to debate the ruling, to agree that secession was "unacceptable" and that negotiations on all "open issues" should be relaunched, meaning the years of UN-brokered talks that led to Kosovo's independence would be undone.

Instead, the formula sees Serbia "acknowledge" the court's ruling and "welcomes the readiness of the EU to facilitate a process of dialogue between the parties [Serbia and Kosovo]", according to the text made available to the Guardian.

In the past two weeks William Hague, the foreign secretary, and Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, have been to Belgrade, urging the country to either ditch the resolution or agree to the new formula backed by all of the EU.

Tadic had dinner in Brussels with Ashton yesterday and spent much of today haggling with her on the phone from Belgrade. The result was an exercise in "constructive ambiguity" formally agreed by Serbia and all 27 EU countries. Diplomats and EU officials said they hoped talks would open before the end of the year. The EU and Ashton are certain to mediate, but Kosovo's leadership will also be keen to involve the US, which will spur the Serbs to seek Russian involvement.


Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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