Global Policy Forum

Kosovo Declares Independence from Serbia


By Dan Bilefsky

International Herald Tribune
February 18, 2008

The breakaway province of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, sending tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians streaming through the streets to celebrate what they hoped was the end of a long and bloody struggle for national self-determination.

Kosovo's aim to be recognized as Europe's newest country — after a civil war that killed 10,000 people a decade ago then years of limbo under United Nations rule — was the latest episode in the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia, 17 years after its dissolution began. It brings to a climax a showdown between the West, which argues that Serbia's brutal subjugation of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority cost it any right to rule the territory, and the Serbian government and its allies in the Kremlin, which counter that Kosovo's independence is a reckless breach of international law that will spur other secessionist movements across the world.

As Albanians danced in the streets and fired guns in the air in the capital, Pristina, international reaction was sharply divided, suggesting that the clash between the principles of sovereignty and self-determination was far from resolved.

Britain, France and Germany were expected to be the first recognize the new nation as early as Monday while other nations, fearing separatist movements within their own borders, have said they would refuse. Russia demanded an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to proclaim the declaration "null and void," but the meeting produced no resolution.

In declaring independence, Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, a former leader of the guerrilla force that just over 10 years ago began an armed rebellion against Serbian domination, struck a note of reconciliation. Addressing Parliament in both Albanian and Serbian, he pledged to protect the rights of the Serbian minority. "I feel the heartbeat of our ancestors," he said. "We, the leaders of our people, democratically elected, through this declaration proclaim Kosovo an independent and sovereign state."

Ethnic Albanians from as far away as America poured into Pristina this weekend, braving freezing temperatures and heavy snow to dance in frenzied jubilation. Beating drums, waving Albanian flags and throwing firecrackers, they chanted: "Independence! Independence! We are free at last!" A 100-foot-long huge birthday cake was installed on Pristina's main boulevard.

In an outpouring of adulation for the United States, the architect of NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Serbian forces under President Slobodan Milosevic, thousands of revelers unfurled giant American flags, carried posters of former President Bill Clinton and chanted "Thank you U.S.A." and "God bless America."

The spirit of exaltation in Pristina contrasted sharply with the despair, anger and disbelief that gripped Serbia and the Serbian enclaves of northern Kosovo. In Belgrade, up to 2,000 angry Serbs converged on the United States Embassy, hurling stones and smashing windows. In the Kosovo Serb stronghold of Mitrovica, a grenade was thrown at a United Nations building, the police said. No one was injured.

Vojislav Kostunica, the prime minister of Serbia, which has regarded Kosovo as its heartland since medieval times, vowed that Serbia would never recognize the "false state." In an address on national television on Sunday, he said Kosovo was propped up unlawfully by the United States and called the declaration a "humiliation" for the European Union. The Serbian government has ruled out using military force in response, but was expected to downgrade diplomatic ties with any government that recognized Kosovo.

Demonstrations are planned for Monday in Serbian enclaves across Kosovo, with the expectation that Serbs will seek to entrench the parallel institutions they have set up as part of their rejection of Pristina's rule.

European Union officials said that Britain, France and Germany were expected to recognize Kosovo within 48 hours of the declaration, in part to try to prevent Russia and Serbia from rallying opposition to recognizing Kosovo. Recognition by the United States other European Union member states was expected to follow in the coming days.

At the Security Council, Russia argued that the proclamation violated the 1999 resolution that established the United Nations mission in Kosovo. "Our position is that the declaration should be disregarded by the international community and declared null and void," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador.

But Alejandro Wolff, the deputy American ambassador, said, "In our view this declaration is logical and consistent and completely in line with" the 1999 measure.

In a statement on behalf of the European members of the Council, Johan Verbeke, the ambassador of Belgium, said, "Internationally supervised independence is the only viable option to deliver sustained stability and security." Secretary General Ban Ki-moon read a statement that avoided taking sides and pleaded with all parties "to refrain from any actions of statements that could endanger peace, incite violence or jeopardize security in Kosovo or the region."

The council agreed to a request by Russia and Serbia to hold an open meeting on Monday that will be addressed by the Serbian president, Boris Tadic. The declaration followed nearly two years of United Nations-sponsored negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade. Those talks failed, as did a Security Council effort in December to resolve Kosovo's future.

President George W. Bush, speaking Sunday in Tanzania, said the United States would continue to work to prevent violence in Kosovo, while reaching out to Serbia. "On Kosovo, our position is that its status must be resolved in order for the Balkans to be stable," he said. "We also believe it's in Serbia's interests to be aligned with Europe, and the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America."

The European Commission, the European Union's executive branch, appealed for calm, while NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said the alliance would respond "swiftly and firmly against anyone who might resort to violence."

Ulrich Wilhelm, the spokesman for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Germany would decide what to do on Monday.

Hundreds of people celebrated in Times Square, waving Albanian flags, driving in circles and chanting to the crowds gathered on the sidewalks.

Kosovo played a central role in the collapse of the Yugoslav federation built by the Communist strongman Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980. Albanian nationalism erupted in Kosovo in 1981, leading to bloody clashes. In the '80s, Milosevic used Serbs' enormous sense of grievance that their ancestral heartland was now dominated by Muslim Albanians to come to power in Serbia. By 1989, he had abolished Kosovo's autonomy, fired tens of thousands of Albanians from their jobs, suppressed Albanian language education and controlled the territory with a heavy police presence.

In 1989, at celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, Milosevic delivered a thinly veiled warning that Serbs would fight to preserve their lands outside Serbia if rival republics such as Croatia declared independence. In 1991, that occurred, plunging the Balkans into almost a decade of wars that cost more than 200,000 lives.

Ten years ago, Milosevic's forces moved against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, killing a guerrilla leader and his family at their compound. As violence escalated, NATO intervened in a 1999 bombing campaign, causing hundreds of thousands of Albanians and Serbs to flee. An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed in the 1998-99 conflict, many of them Albanians, while 1,500 Serbs perished in revenge killings that followed. Kosovo, a landlocked territory of two million, has been a United Nations protectorate since 1999, policed by 16,000 NATO troops.

For the ethnic Albanians who make up 95 percent of the population, independence marks a new beginning. "Independence is a catharsis," said Antoneta Kastrati, 26, an Albanian from Peja, who said her mother and older sister were killed by their Serbian neighbors in 1999. "Things won't change overnight and we cannot forget the past, but maybe I will feel safe now and my nightmares will finally go away."

In Mitrovica, Serbs said they were under orders from Belgrade to ignore the declaration and remain in Kosovo to keep the northern part of the territory under de facto Serbian control. "I will stay here forever ," said a 70-year-old engineer who would give only his first name, Svetozar. "This will always be Serbia. I am not afraid of Kosovo's independence because I don't recognize it."

Kosovo's declaration created immediate ripples in the former Soviet Union, where small, Russian-backed separatist areas — one in Moldova and two in the republic of Georgia — have existed since the early 1990s. Two of them — Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia — announced their intention to seek recognition as independent states. Conversely, several of the European Union's 27 member states — including Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania — oppose recognizing Kosovo because they fear encouraging secessionist movements within their own borders.

In Brussels, officials were drafting a statement for a foreign ministers' meeting on Monday. Senior European Union officials said they expected it would acknowledge Kosovo's independence declaration without explicitly endorsing it.

Kosovo's sovereignty remains severely circumscribed, making it reliant on the international community. NATO still provides international security, while the European Union will help administer the territory after the United Nations leaves.

Kosovo's unemployment rate is about 60 percent and average monthly wage is $250. Electricity is so undependable that lights go out in the capital several times a day. Corruption is rife and human trafficking threatens to entrench a lawless state on Europe's doorstep.

The declaration of independence raises the prospects of a new constitution and emblems of nationhood, including a new flag bearing a map of Kosovo topped by six stars. But in a sign of how hard it will be to forge the kind of multiethnic, secular identity foreign powers have urged, the distinctive two-headed eagle of the red and black Albanian flag, reviled by Serbs, was everywhere Sunday, held by revelers, draped on horses, flapping out of car windows and hanging outside homes and storefronts across the territory.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Kosovo
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