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Kosovo Declares Independence From Serbia

Nebi Qena and William J. Kole in Pristina, Kosovo
Associated Press
February 17, 2008
 
Kosovo's parliament declared the disputed territory a nation on Sunday, mounting a historic bid to become an "independent and democratic state" backed by the United States and European allies but bitterly contested by Serbia and Russia.

Serbia immediately denounced the declaration as illegal. Russia also rejected it, demanding an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

U.S. President George W. Bush said the U.S. would work to prevent violence after the declaration. The European Union (EU) appealed for calm, mindful of the risk that the declaration could plunge the turbulent Balkans back into instability.

(Related: "Yugoslavia Name Change No Surprise to Geographers" [February 14, 2003].)

Newest Country?

"Kosovo is a republic—an independent, democratic and sovereign state," Kosovo's parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi said as the chamber burst into applause.

Across the capital, Pristina, revelers danced in the streets, fired guns into the air, and waved red and black Albanian flags in jubilation at the birth of what may soon be widely recognized as the world's newest country.

Sunday's declaration was carefully orchestrated with the U.S. and key European powers, and Kosovo was counting on swift international recognition, which could come as early as Monday, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium.

But by sidestepping the UN and appealing directly to the U.S. and other nations for recognition, Kosovo set up a showdown with Serbia—outraged at the imminent loss of its territory—and Russia, which warned that it would set a dangerous precedent for separatist groups worldwide.

Ethnic, Religious Divisions

Ninety percent of Kosovo's two million people are ethnic Albanian—most of them secular Muslims—and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.

Krasniqi, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, and President Fatmir Sejdiu signed the declaration, which was scripted on parchment, before the unveiling of a new national crest and a flag: a bright blue banner featuring a golden map of Kosovo and six stars, one for each of its main ethnic groups.

"From today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent, and free," said Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The army battled Serbian troops in a 1998-99 separatist war, which claimed 10,000 lives.

"We never lost faith in the dream that one day we would stand among the free nations of the world, and today we do."

"Our hopes have never been higher," he told the assembly. "Dreams are infinite, our challenges loom large, but nothing can deter us from moving forward to the greatness that history has reserved for us."

Thaci pledged the new nation would be "a democratic, multiethnic state"—an attempt to reach out to Serbs who consider Kosovo the cradle of their culture and religion.

But he also had stern words for the Serbian government, which last week declared secession illegal and invalid.

Speaking in the Serbian language, Thaci said, "Kosovo will never be ruled by Belgrade again."

Thaci on Sunday signed 192 separate letters to nations around the world—including Serbia—asking them to recognize Kosovo as a state.

Serbia Rejects Bid

Serbian President Boris Tadic rejected the independence bid immediately, declaring Sunday's proclamation "unilateral and illegal." Kosovo's ten Serb lawmakers boycotted the parliamentary session in protest.

And Serbia's government minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said Sunday that Serbia would increase its presence in the roughly 15 percent of Kosovo that is Serb controlled—an apparent attempt to divide the province.

Serbia's government ruled out any military response as part of its secret "action plan" drafted earlier this week as a response. But the country said that it would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Moscow supports Serbia's "just demands to restore the country's territorial integrity."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that independence without UN approval would set a dangerous precedent for "frozen conflicts" across the former Soviet Union and around the world. He is pressuring the UN Security Council to intervene.

(Related: "Montenegro Splits From Serbia, Redrawing Europe's Map" [May 22, 2006].)

U.S. Support

Before Kosovo's parliament voted, President Bush had said the U.S. will work to prevent violent clashes after the independence declaration. The U.S. State Department was reviewing the development with European allies as the province sought swift recognition from the West.

"The United States will continue to work with our allies to do the very best we can to make sure there's no violence," Bush said several hours before Kosovo's parliament approved the declaration.

"We are heartened by the fact that the Kosovo government has clearly proclaimed its willingness and its desire to support Serbian rights in Kosovo," Bush said.

"We also believe it's in Serbia's interest to be aligned with Europe, and the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America."

Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia, even though the UN and NATO have administered Kosovo since 1999, when NATO air strikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Sixteen thousand NATO-led peacekeepers still guard Kosovo, and the alliance boosted its patrols over the weekend in hopes of discouraging violence. International police, meanwhile, deployed to back up local forces in the tense north.

Spontaneous street celebrations broke out anew on Sunday, with giddy Kosovars waving Albanian and U.S. flags and dancing in the streets.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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