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Why Kosovo's independence bid is unique

Effort may lack UN legality, but is politically practical, say many diplomats, despite Serb anger.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2008

Pushed out: One million people fled Kosovo in 1999 to escape Serbia's ethnic cleansing. Here ethnic Albanians wait at the Morina border crossing to Albania.

ANDY NELSON – STAFF/FILE

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PRISTINA, KOSOVO

As Kosovo prepares to be Europe's newest state on Sunday – supported by the United States and most of Europe – it is doing so without United Nations Security Council approval, the guarantor of legality among nations. Russia calls Kosovo independence illegal, a "Pandora's Box," in the words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Serbia, a UN member, says Kosovo succession violates its ancient, sovereign territory. Cyprus and Romania cite a dangerous precedent in allowing minority groups to split willy-nilly.

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Even some diplomats supporting Kosovo say that on legal grounds alone, the arguments – Serbian sovereignty vs. ethnic Albanian self-determination – are inconclusive. They say Kosovo is a political not a legal problem – one clouded by nine years of world attention on terrorism, Iraq, Guantánamo, and an erosion of America's high ground after the Berlin Wall fell.

"I worry that we've forgotten how we got here [to Kosovo independence]," says William Walker, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in 1999 to verify that Serbia was not using excessive force in Kosovo. "I visited the site of a mass execution in Racak the day after it happened, before the Serbs could clean up the story. Such events were taking place all over Kosovo, as they did in Croatia and Bosnia. This led to NATO intervention."

Indeed, supporters say the Kosovo case is unique: The dissolution of Yugoslavia, the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in the Balkans conducted by Serbian state actors, the second-class status of the majority Albanians and their refusal to ever accept Belgrade as a capital – creates an exceptional confluence of historical, moral, and practical claims.

A central legal issue bears on the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Kosovo's former status in it. Kosovo was not a republic. But it had a special status. It not only had veto rights and a president in Yugoslavia's rotating presidency, it had representation in all aspects of federal Yugoslavia – parliament, courts, civil administration. Analysts say Kosovo benefited from the balancing of its status among the other five republics of Yugoslavia – all of which now exist as separate states. Serbia can't offer Kosovo what Yugoslavia offered it, they say.

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