Kosovo will declare independence from Serbia with Western backing the weekend after the February 3 Serbian presidential election if the nationalist candidate wins, political sources said on Wednesday.
If (Tomislav) Nikolic wins, it's the 9th or 10th, a senior political source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
A second source confirmed that if pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic wins the knife-edge contest, ethnic Albanians in the breakaway province would be expected to wait at least another week, declaring on February 17 at the earliest.
The major Western powers are pushing for February, one of the sources added. NATO's 16,000-strong peace force is braced for possible unrest, and a potential backlash by Serb-dominated north Kosovo where Serbs promise to reject independence.
European Union foreign ministers expect next month to approve the deployment a 1,800-strong police and justice mission over a 4-month transition from the United Nations authorities that have run Kosovo since the 1998-99 war.
Western diplomats say some of the 27 EU member states would favor delaying independence until late February or early March if Tadic wins Sunday's tight run-off election, keen to help him control the inevitable political fallout from the loss of what many Serbs regard as their religious heartland.
A senior Western diplomat told Reuters that victory for hardliner Nikolic, whose party leader is standing trial for war crimes stemming from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, would undermine any calls for a delay on Kosovo.
Expect that if Nikolic gets in, the process will be speeded up, the diplomat said.
Serbian officials refused to comment on the information.
Analysts say the presidential election, which could decide Serbia's attitude to the West after Kosovo's independence, will be extremely tight, with latest polls giving Tadic a two point lead, within the statistical margin of error.
If Tadic wins, the declaration will be coordinated with the U.S. and EU and indirectly with Serbia, Kosovo Albanian commentator Baton Haxhiu told Reuters, saying the West would try to use Serbia to limit the backlash in the Serb north.
Serb ally Russia has blocked Kosovo's secession at the U.N. Security Council, almost nine years after NATO's 1999 bombing campaign to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serb forces in a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Worried at Kosovo's continued limbo, the United States and major EU powers are now trying to coordinate a declaration of independence, seeing no prospect of returning the 90-percent Albanian majority to Serb rule.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he hoped the EU would agree in early February to deploy its mission.
We have de facto made that decision at the European Council in December and we are very much in favor of implementing this decision as soon as possible, he said.
Serbia and Russia have warned of chaos in the fragile Balkans if Kosovo strikes out alone, but almost two years of negotiations ended in December in deadlock.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci brushed off suggestions events in Serbia would determine the timeline to independence.
Kosovo's independence will happen in the coming days, regardless of whether Nikolic or Tadic wins, he told reporters. Kosovo has its own path.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina and Marja Novak in Ljubljana; editing by Keith Weir)