The Serbian government will face a crucial no-confidence motion today despite concerns it might jeopardize delicate talks with Kosovo Albanian leaders that are also scheduled to start today, a top official said.
Some government ministers had called for the parliamentary session to be postponed to avoid complicating the long-awaited launch of talks between Serbian and Kosovo Albanian officials in Vienna. But now it looks like both will start today.
"The session will begin as scheduled on October 14," Natasa Micic, speaker of Serbia's parliament, told the Beta news agency.
The Vienna talks would be the first direct meetings between the two sides after the 1998-1999 Serb-led crackdown on separatist Kosovo Albanians that led to NATO air intervention, a Serb military pullout and subsequent UN control of Kosovo. The authority of Serb officials attending the talks would be put into question if the opposition succeeded in the no-confidence vote, which could force the government to resign and face new elections.
In another development that could affect the success of the talks, a key Kosovo Albanian leader was quoted on Sunday as saying he would stay away from the negotiations.
"I am not going to the Vienna talks," Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told the daily Koha Ditore.
Rexhepi's refusal to attend was linked to parliament failing to authorize the government to participate. Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, however, has said he would go to Vienna, and western diplomats in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, said the talks would go ahead, with or without Rexhepi.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said without elaboration that the talks in Vienna would be a "major victory" for Belgrade and urged full participation by Kosovo Albanian leaders.
"We have been offering talks for nearly three years now.... Kosovo Albanians should act in a responsible manner," Zivkovic told reporters in the city of Nis, 200km south of the capital, Belgrade.
Kosovo remains legally a province of Serbia and Montenegro, the loose union that replaced Yugoslavia, but Belgrade has had no say in its affairs since mid-1999, when the UN assumed control.
Serbia wants to regain authority in Kosovo, while the ethnic Albanian majority seeks independence. But the status of the province is not up for discussion at the Vienna talks, which is focusing on how to ensure energy supplies to Kosovo and other questions aimed at keeping it functioning and easing ethnic tensions.
Micic said that the no-confidence vote had emerged at "the worst possible moment" since it could have "negative consequences at the start of talks with Pristina."
Many of the opposition are nationalist supporters of former President Slobodan Milosevic, who is being tried for alleged war crimes. Staunchly anti-Western, they consider the current government a traitor to Serbian national interests.
The nationalists, who control about 120 of the 250 seats in parliament, demanded a no-confidence vote earlier this month, accusing the government of corruption and failure to increase living standards in the three years since Milosevic's ouster.
The opposition may topple the government if it wins support of at least six defectors from the crumbling governing democratic bloc.
Deputies will also vote today on whether to dismiss Micic, who is also Serbia's acting president, as the parliamentary speaker. If ousted, Micic would also have to step down as acting president.
If she is voted out of the parliamentary office, that position will be automatically taken by the most senior deputy in the parliament -- a Milosevic loyalist.
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