PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro – Kosovo lawmakers elected a moderate new president Friday, paving the way for the start of talks on the province's future status.
President Fatmir Sejdiu told The Associated Press Friday that he would not abandon the ethnic Albanian majority's push for independence from Serbia. But he pledged in his acceptance speech to make Kosovo a state that guarantees minority rights and is "at peace with itself and its neighbors."
"Kosovo's independence is non-negotiable," Sejdiu said in an interview at his modest house in Pristina. "For us it is very important that this road to independence is a quick one," he said.
The parliament voted 80-12 to make Sejdiu Kosovo's second president since a NATO bombing campaign ended a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999. He replaces pro-independence leader Ibrahim Rugova, who died of lung cancer on Jan. 21.
Since 1999 Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations, leaving open the question of whether it becomes independent or remains part of Serbia.
A top Serbian ultranationalist leader, meanwhile, said Friday that if Kosovo gains independence Belgrade will declare it an occupied territory.
The presidential post in Kosovo is largely ceremonial but it has gained importance because the president is to lead negotiations with Serb officials.
Sejdiu, a 54-year-old law professor and member of parliament, has been secretary-general of Kosovo's largest party, the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, which he helped found in the early 1990s.
He is considered a political moderate but his positions on Kosovo's status are nearly identical to Rugova's.
Sejdiu pledged in his acceptance speech to work closely with the United States and European Union "to make Kosovo a state, at peace with itself and its neighbors ... a country that will guarantee all civic freedoms and those of minorities according to the highest international standards."
Rugova dominated the province's politics for 16 years and epitomized ethnic Albanians' quest for independence. His death caused the latest of several delays in negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia.
U.N.-mediated talks are expected to start around Feb. 20 in Vienna, Austria.
Western diplomats recently indicated that Kosovo's quest for independence from Serbia was conditional on its becoming a democracy that respects minority rights. The first round of negotiations will deal with local government reforms meant to give Kosovo's Serbs and other minorities greater say in where they live.
Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party, said no politician in Serbia would accept Kosovo independence.
"If someone declares an independent Kosovo ... we will declare that an occupation and use all means to revoke that state of occupation," Nikolic said.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic also have rejected independence for Kosovo.