The parliament of Kosovo, the autonomous region of Serbia, has declared its independence, spurred by the region's majority ethnic Albanians.
The move comes nine years after the United States and NATO began airstrikes against Serbian military targets in the former Yugoslavia.
While it has stated that it has a plan of action in place if Kosovo tried to break away, Serbian officials have ruled out any military action to retain the region. Instead, experts say, the country is likely to use sanctions and trade pressures to influence Kosovo.
Kosovo, in yellow, surrounded by its Balkan neighbors. Click to view a larger map of the region.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
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.
Kosovo is declaring independence. During a special parliamentary session Sunday, Serbia's breakaway province proclaimed itself the world's newest state.
The declaration received a stern reaction from the Serbian president, who said his nation would never accept an independent Kosovo. President Bush said the U.S. would work to prevent violence after the declaration and the European Union also appealed for calm.
Deputies unanimously approved the declaration of independence in a solemn session of Parliament. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci . read the declaration, saying, "We the leaders of our people, democratically elected, through this declaration proclaim Kosovo an independent and sovereign state," adding, "This declaration reflects the will of the people."
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 the world's newest country.
Earlier, Thaci delivered a speech underscoring that the new state would ensure the rights of all minorities and will be democratic and multiethnic.
By sidestepping the U.N. 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.