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Split widens over Kosovo

Independence backed by US; others snub it

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Finn and Peter Baker
Washington Post / February 19, 2008

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo - The United States and the European Union's largest countries recognized the independence of Kosovo yesterday, a major boost for the fledgling state, which still faces intense opposition from Russia, Serbia, and even some Western European countries over its proclaimed status.

President Bush, traveling in Africa, hailed the new state's "special friendship" with the United States, promising to set up a US embassy there and inviting Kosovo to establish a diplomatic mission in Washington.

"On behalf of the American people, I hereby recognize Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state," Bush said in a letter to President Fatmir Sejdiu. "I congratulate you and Kosovo's citizens for having taken this important step in your democratic and national development."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who first announced the US decision, tried to placate the Serbs, and by extension their closest allies, the Russians. "We invite Serbia's leaders to work together with the United States and our partners to accomplish shared goals," she said in a statement.

In a widely expected move, Kosovo's independence from Serbia was declared Sunday by its parliament, which is dominated by ethnic Albanians. The decision has divided the European Union, which is supposed to supervise independence and replace a UN mission that has acted as the province's overseer since Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo in 1999.

What will happen next is unclear. Russia and Serbia have called on the United Nations to overturn the independence declaration, and Russia appears likely to try to block any attempt to wind down the UN mission here and turn it over to the EU.

American and some EU diplomats say they believe that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can order the transition without referring the issue to the Security Council, where Russia holds veto power. But a period of intense diplomatic wrangling is likely.

"We think that [Ban Ki-moon] should more clearly define his position," Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, an official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, told the news agency Interfax. He added that Moscow "expects the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo to invalidate the resolution of the Pristina parliament."

Members of Kosovo's Serb minority insist they will never recognize the declaration of independence. And the vast majority of them appear determined not to cooperate with EU oversight, even though it is intended to guarantee their rights in Kosovo, whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

Thousands of Serbs marched in this divided city yesterday chanting, "This is Serbia!" Much of northwestern Kosovo, beginning at the Ibar River, which divides Mitrovica, is almost entirely Serb.

"Serbia regards this as theft," Serbia's deputy minister for Kosovo, Vuko Antonijevic, said in an interview at the rally. "Serbia will try to keep Kosovo within our borders, and we will use all political and diplomatic means to achieve that."

In a worrying sign for the new Kosovo government, and the future EU mission, Serb policemen have begun to leave the multiethnic Kosovo police force created by the United Nations and are pledging loyalty instead to authorities in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, according to political leaders here.

The creation of separate governing and law enforcement bodies in Serb enclaves, particularly in northern Kosovo, which borders Serbia proper, could mark an attempt to partition Kosovo.

"If they can have their independence, then we can have ours," said Snezana Milenkovic, a 20-year-old dentistry student from Mitrovica who now lives in Belgrade but returned here for yesterday's protest. "If Kosovo cannot stay in Serbia, then we will look for partition."

Officially, at least, Serb leaders have avoided stating that they want to make any current divisions in Mitrovica permanent; it would lead not only to the abandonment of Kosovo but of isolated Serb communities south of Mitrovica.

Serb leaders said Kosovo will never become a truly independent state because Russia and Serbia will prevent it from joining international organizations, especially the United Nations.

"As long as there is Russia and Serbia, there will never be an independent Kosovo," said Marko Jaksic, a hard-line Kosovo Serb leader, speaking at yesterday's protest in Mitrovica, where portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin adorn shop windows. "America is no longer the single world power."

The formal US statement on Kosovo came at the end of a long and confusing day. Bush appeared to recognize Kosovo's independence during an interview with NBC News, only to have the White House try to withdraw the recognition and then finally reconfirm it after Rice's statement was released. Serbia then withdrew its ambassador from Washington in protest.

In her statement, Rice also warned Russia that Kosovo should not be used "as a precedent" to support independence for pro-Moscow breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union.

Spain, which fears that Kosovo's independence could bolster separatist impulses among its own population, forcefully refused to recognize Kosovo statehood. Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia are also expected to decline to recognize Kosovo's independence.

The EU was able to agree on a supervisory mission because it was sanctioned before Kosovo declared independence, thus avoiding any de facto recognition of the country's new status by countries that are opposed to it.

Charles Grant, head of the Center for European Reform in London, said that from a public relations standpoint, the divisions "make the EU look a little bit silly as an organization, but in practical terms, the reality is it doesn't matter much because even the countries that don't really approve of independence are going along with the majority and not preventing things from happening."

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