The UN Security Council decided to open final status talks on Kosovo last month. They will not begin in ideal circumstances – the province is riven by ethnic division and saddled with economic problems. But the UN felt there was no point in putting off the talks. Kosovo rapporteur Kai Eide said:“I sincerely believe that the time has come to start the future status process. Since last year a political process has been underway in Kosovo driven by a more dynamic international engagement. This process cannot be interrupted or brought to a halt.” There are fears that the negotiations will merely exacerbate tensions between the Albanian majority and the Serb minority, as the two communities’ goals are diametrically opposed. Tensions have flared into full-scale violence on several occasions, as in Mitrovica in October 1999. The two sides fought each other across the bridge which has become the symbol of ethnic division in the province. Last year bloody rioting left numerous Orthodox churches damaged and inter-community relations at an all-time low. All of which makes the job of the UN peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, extremely delicate. The final status talks are based on four principles: no return to the pre-war situation, no partition, no annexation to a neighbouring state, and safeguards for ethnic minorities. However, no position is taken on the biggest question of all – should Kosovo be granted independence ? Belgrade and the Serb minority in the province categorically reject that outcome. But the vast majority of ethnic Albanians – whether they are moderates such as President Ibrahim Rugova or hardliners – say they will settle for nothing less than independence. That leaves UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari between a rock and a hard place.