After declaring independence, Kosovo looks to cautious next steps

President Bush hailed the controversial move, as the EU and UN met to form their responses.

Darko Bandic/AP
Celebration: In Kosovo, fireworks followed a declaration of independence from Serbia on Sunday. The international community is at odds over the move.

For Kosovo, a peaceful declaration of independence from Serbia on Sunday brought well-mannered euphoria. But the next days may be as crucial as the long decade of waiting.

Maybe more so: Kosovo is now "proud, independent, and free," declared Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. The last crumbs of a chocolate-vanilla cake that fed 30,000 jubilant Albanians on Mother Teresa Avenue have been eaten by flocks of blackbirds. But the tiny new state's status remains to be hashed out by great powers in Brussels, New York, Washington, and Moscow this week.

The legal basis for moving the United Nations administration out of Kosovo – and European Union forces into it – are disputed by Russia. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is in a hot spot since he will need to interpret key UN resolution 1244. The West says the resolution allows for Kosovo's independence since it plainly sets up a final status process; Moscow and Belgrade argue it doesn't.

President Bush, on an African tour, was the first to declare Kosovo independent, followed by France hours later. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, ahead of an emergency Security Council meeting Monday, called Kosovo's declaration "null and void." It's unclear how sustained an orthodox alliance between Russia and Serbia will be.

"Now that Russia has acted out, done what it had to do to stand with Belgrade, will the US forgive Russia, downplay all this, so we can get back to our serious disagreements [with Moscow]?" asks Marshall Harris, a former US diplomat. "I hate to be an optimist on the Balkans, but I think the US and Russia will put this behind us."

Whether Serb patriots plan violence past the two grenades hurled at international offices in Mitrovica or the attacks on the US and Slovenian embassies in Belgrade Sunday is also unclear.

Prelates of the Serbian Orthodox church, whose monasteries dot Kosovo, called for military response, but Serb Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has not. Mr. Bush insists the new Kosovo government make good on expanded, protective rights that connect the 120,000 Serb minorities solidly to Belgrade for years.

EU response

Monday, EU foreign ministers in Brussels robustly affirmed its upcoming "rule of law" mission for Kosovo, though they remained sensitive to dissenting European states – including Cyprus, Romania, Spain, and Slovakia – which are worried about a separatist precedent. An EU donors conference for Kosovo, originally scheduled for March, has been pushed to June.

Le Monde, the leading French daily, yesterday called the mission "the most important [the EU] has ever decided on in the political realm of security and defense."

In Pristina, the mechanics of independence went more smoothly than many ordinary Kosovars and officials here had dared to hope. No violence was reported.

"We have been waiting for centuries for this day to come. I'm so happy that Kosovo is now the world's newest country," says Safet Haxhijaha, one of a group of men wearing T-shirts proclaiming Kosovo "The World's 193rd State."

Had it not been for the faded photographs of the Kosovo war dead hanging on the fence of the parliament building, the gaiety and conviviality would have been almost enough to help forget the brutal events that set Kosovo on the path to statehood.

"What we need now is a gigantic leap out of the Balkans and into Europe, mentally and culturally," says a longtime senior UN official here. "Both Serbs and Albanians need to stop thinking about the past, revenge, history, and focus on the future. What bodes well for Kosovo is the optimistic feel everyone had on Sunday. Kosovars even really like the new flag."

On Monday morning in Belgrade, eyewitnesses to the stoning of the US Embassy said protesters broke windows but did not go further in their tussle with Serb police. "It was not many people, about 400, and the kind of people who do this all the time, at soccer stadiums, wherever they can vent," said a long time Belgrade resident who ventured out Sunday night.

"It seems to me like an airing out, a letting out of tensions and strong emotions, that might be expected," said a former government minister contacted by phone. "But there aren't any tanks in the streets, of course, and a lot of people now think, let's be calm and smart and get on with things. Given the political tensions here, however, I truly hope the EU and US will offer some tangible help to those forces advising calmness and smartness. It would make a difference."

On Sunday, as Mr. Thaci addressed the parliament, officially declaring Kosovo independent, men and women wept in the streets. Later the skies were lit by 80 tons of fireworks, as Pristina reverberated to explosions far more welcome than those of a decade ago, when a million people left their homes for refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania.

Serbs protest

But Serbs across Kosovo took to the streets to protest the declaration. Serbian leaders have announced plans to establish a parallel parliament, a move that will deepen the separation between the two communities.

"We will not cooperate with the EU," says Boris Janicijevic, a young worker in Mitrovica. "The mission was not agreed in the Security Council, so it is not valid. If they come here, we will start civil disobedience, and totally boycott them."

Kosovo Serbs already look to Belgrade for many of their basic needs. The Serbian government provides their pensions, healthcare, and education.

Analysts fear that Serbia will build up its own institutions in Kosovo in coming months, cementing the de facto partition between the Serb-dominated north and the Albanian majority in the south that has existed since the war.

Going against Serbian and Russian convictions, Western diplomats have argued the case of Kosovo is unique and that separatists in other states in Europe and the Balkans will not receive aid and welcome from major powers. "It is incorrect to view this as a precedent and it doesn't serve any purpose to view it as a precedent," said Alejandro Wolff, US deputy permanent representative to the UN.

British diplomats said that UN resolution 1244, signed after the NATO bombing with Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic in order to legally remove Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, was not intended to freeze Kosovo's status indefinitely.

"We all agree that 1244 is in place," said Sir John Sawers, British ambassador to the UN, "[But] nothing in 1244 rules out the recognition of an independent Kosovo," adding that 1244 ensured "an interim period, which is over," to be replaced by the UN-sponsored Ahtisaari plan, to be set up by the EU.

In Paris, the daily newspaper Le Monde warned in an editorial that Kosovo's independence could bring instability in the region.

"To avoid this danger, the EU will have to invest, more than it's actually doing now, in the entire region. And in particular Serbia, which must be able to believe in its European future. This policy will be expensive in material and human resources. Europeans must be aware of that."

In Pristina, columnist Baton Haxhiu says much is riding on Europe's attitude. "Whether or not Kosovo opens up and we become European, or we move inward to become more Albanian and Balkan, depends on how welcoming Europe is."

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