Pressure Mounts on Kosovo Independence

Milorad Radivojevic

Milorad Radivojevic places flowers near the vandalized gravestone of a relative buried in the town of Svinjare. He has been unable to return to his village since an ethnic Albanian mob burned and looted Serb property there in 2004. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
Sala Hajdari

Sala Hajdari escaped to a nearby Catholic village when Serb armed forces attacked her ethnic Albanian village in March 1999. She said she hopes her 13-month-old granddaughter, Devlina, never experiences anything similar. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR

This is the first piece in a two-part series.

The final chapter soon may be written in the bloody Balkan wars that ripped apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s and re-wrote the map of southern Europe.

The United Nations Security Council is discussing a proposal to set the province of Kosovo clearly on the path to independence from Serbia.

The United States strongly backs an independent Kosovo, insisting that is the only way to bring stability to the region. But Russia, also a key player in the process, adamantly insists Kosovo stay a part of Serbia.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku is not ruling out simply declaring independence, but only if the European Union and the United States agree to recognize and support the new country.

Western officials say they don't want the U.N. process to stall to the point Kosovo would declare independence.

Meanwhile, Kosovo Albanians have already started working on a constitution. No ethnic Serbs are involved in the process, but members of the ethnic Albanian political parties that are a part of the process say it's very informal.

American and European politicians say anything short of independence could lead to violence, as the frustrated Albanians in Kosovo are determined to be free from Belgrade.

Q&A: The State of Kosovo

Map of Kosovo i i

Kosovo, in yellow, surrounded by its Balkan neighbors. Click to view a larger map of the region. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Kosovo

A map of Kosovo and its Balkan neighbors.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

After years of dispute over Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province is expected to declare its independence this weekend.

The plan includes keeping NATO's peacekeeping force in place — and having the European Union take over from the United Nations in overseeing the judicial system and ensuring rule of law.

Serbia has rejected the idea of an independent Kosovo, but has said it would not use force against the province.

Here's some background on the situation:

Where is Kosovo?

Kosovo is in southern Europe. It is a landlocked area a bit smaller than Connecticut — north of Macedonia, east of Albania, south of Serbia, and west of Bulgaria. It's at nearly the same latitude as the "ankle" of Italy.

What is Kosovo's legal status?

Kosovo is technically still a part of Serbia, which was the dominant republic in the former Yugoslavia. But since 1999, Kosovo has been run by a U.N. mission and protected by NATO troops. When Yugoslavia existed as a country, Kosovo was — for part of that time — an autonomous area within Serbia.

What led to the current situation?

In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia in order to stop what the organization called a "campaign of terror" against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, carried out by the then Yugoslav military and irregular Serb paramilitary groups. At the end of the bombing, the Security Council approved Resolution 1244, which gave a U.N. mission the responsibility to administer Kosovo, while developing elements of a local provisional government, until a final political solution could be arranged for Kosovo.

The antagonism between Serbs and Albanians has roots that date back to the Middle Ages. These tensions have flared into violence in varying degrees since then, including in the years just prior to the 1999 bombing.

What has Russia's stance been?

Russia's major public objection is that the United Nations doesn't have the right to carve up sovereign states and warns this will set a bad precedent. Moscow refers frequently to U.N .Security Council resolution 1244, which mentions the U.N. "commitment" to the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia. In addition, Moscow backs Serbia in saying that Serbs in Kosovo have not, and cannot be, adequately protected, and says further talks should be held between Serbia and Kosovo.

The United States and the Kosovo government have rejected the idea of more talks, and the U.N. envoy has said the possibilities for discussion are exhausted. The United States also argues that Kosovo is a unique case and should not be seen as setting a precedent for other independent-minded or "breakaway" regions around the world. The situation in Kosovo is being watched closely by people elsewhere around the world who have been seeking their own states, including the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Basques in Spain. A number of such conflicts directly involve Russia, including in Chechnya, Transdniestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Why is this important to the United States?

The United States got involved militarily against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999 after sitting out similarly horrible wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The U.S.-led NATO bombardment set the stage for U.N. governance of Kosovo — and for the current question of its future status. In the U.S. view, the only possible path to stability in the Balkans region is for Kosovo to become independent.

What are the chances of more violence in this area?

Officials from both sides have assured the international community that they would not resort to violence. After the December 10 deadline for an agreement passed without any resolution, Kosovo's prime minister-designate, Hasim Thaci, began talks with his ethnic Albanian political rivals. Thaci leads one of the biggest ethnic Albanian parties.

At the same time, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his country would not accept European Union supervision in Kosovo, and would abandon efforts to join the European Union, if the group recognizes Kosovo as an independent state. The Serbs have insisted that the Kosovo question must be resolved in the United Nations Security Council. That's because Russia, a traditional ally of the Serbs, has a veto on the council. Russia has already said it will ask the U.N. Security Council to nullify any unilateral declaration of independence by the Kosovo Albanians.

Serbia has said it would not use force against the breakaway province, though it's possible that fringe elements on both sides could take advantage of the uncertainly to re-ignite violence.

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