February 17th, 2008 05:30 EST
Kosovo Declares Independence; President Bush Expected to Recognize the Country
PRISTINA, Kosovo. A new country has appeared on the map of Europe, with Prime Minister Hasim Thaci declaring today that Kosovo ceases to be a Serbian province and begins a new period in its often turbulent history – this time as an independent state.
Thousands of people had been waiting in anticipation for Thaci's announcement since late Saturday evening, turning the streets of Pristina and other cities into colorful spectacles of nationalist spirit. Among the red Albanian flags, there were also flags of the United States and European Union – both supporters of the creation of an independent country. The latter is also expected to send a 2,000-strong mission to Kosovo as early as next week to help local authorities organize institutions and maintain stability.
But on Monday, when the joy die down, Kosovo will face problems that until now were solved by others. The most recent Kosovo was administrated by the United Nations which took control over the province in 1999. Officially a Serbian territory, Belgrade had in fact very little to say when it came to Kosovo's domestic policies; those were restricted to U.N. representatives and local parliament and government.
Independent Kosovo is a country of a little over two million people, most of them ethnic Albanians. Serbs constitute some five percent of the entire population and live in small enclaves cordoned off by NATO soldiers. Just as small as Kosovo is – its total area approximates 4,200 square miles – it is also one of the most unstable states in Europe. Relations between local Albanians and Serbs can be compared without much exaggeration to those between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, where as many as 800,000 people were murdered in the 1994 genocide. Five years later Kosovo witnessed similar atrocities, only on a smaller scale: from 1998 to 1999 over 2,000 Albanian civilians were killed by the Serbian army.
Just how divided this former Serbian province is epitomized by the northern city of Mitrovica, where Albanians and Serbs live side by side, yet separated by the river and tons of barbed wire. Shortly before 1999 it was inhabited by almost 100,000 Albanians and 10,000 Serbs who managed to coexist in relative harmony. But when a new war broke out, the city was ravaged by both sides until NATO sent its forces to stop the bloodshed. Since then, the bridge over the river has been a provisional border dividing Mitrovica into the northern Serbian and southern Albanian parts. Although foreign troops guarantee peace and encourage the residents to visit one another, hardly any Serb will cross the bridge. Those Albanians who need medical treatment prefer to drive dozens of miles to another city rather than go to Mitrovica's only hospital, which happens to be in the Serbian precinct.
Located in the very heart of the Balkans, Kosovo debuts on the international stage in a difficult position. Although the United States and European Union are expected to recognize its independence, the latter remains strongly fractured over the issue. At least five member states, including Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, refuse to establish diplomatic relations with Kosovo because its precedence may incite their own separatist movements to call for secession. The same reason is put forward by Russia which also threatens to block Kosovo's accession to the United Nations.
It remains unknown how Serbia will react. Although recently reelected President Boris Tadic said on Friday that he would not send soldiers to Kosovo, news agencies report a large concentration of Serbian forces on the border with the former province. Only two years ago Belgrade had to swallow a bitter pill when Montenegro decided to break a 90-year-long union with Serbia and form an independent country.
The streets of Pristina and other cities were brimming with innocent optimism on Sunday. Starting from scratch is never easy, but for those thousands celebrating independence nothing seemed impossible. NATO and the European Union were only one step away, just like Western prosperity. None of the Balkan countries, except Slovenia, have realized those dreams so far. With the outdated industry heavily dependent on Serbia, it will take years if not decades for Kosovo to join the more affluent part of the continent. Independence opens many ways but some of them are longer and tortuous than previously thought.
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