The parliament in Pristina declared independence from Serbia yesterday.
Kosovo's long-awaited declaration followed the failure of two years of internationally mediated talks on the UN-administered territory's future. The new state -- the seventh to emerge from the ruins of the old Yugoslav federation -- is likely to improve stability in what was the last remaining major flashpoint in the Balkans, by giving Kosovo's majority Albanians what they have demanded. However, it creates, for the time being, a 'frozen conflict' with Serbia, which is refusing to give up its claim.
Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17 was formally unilateral. However, it followed extensive consultations with the United States and EU. Its timing suited EU requirements: it was delayed to allow the 27-nation bloc to authorise beforehand the deployment of a police and justice mission, EULEX Kosovo, so that EU members opposed to Kosovo's unilateral move could sign up to it, without being seen as condoning independence.
The tasks ahead fall into two main categories:
Kosovo's Assembly needs to approve a constitution to replace the Constitutional Framework established by the UN administration (UNMIK), and pass some 30 laws to provide the new state's legal foundation. EULEX is to be deployed over the next four months to help supervise the newly independent state, particularly in the rule of law and protection of Serb and other minority communities.
Legislative programme. The main purpose of the required legislation is to incorporate into Kosovo's constitution and laws the proposals for its internationally supervised independence put forward by the UN's former envoy for Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, in March 2007. Although Russia has blocked the Ahtisaari plan at the UN, the West views it as the best possible way to ensure the viability of a democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo. Many of its provisions, now to be adopted, concern ways to accommodate the Serb minority:
Extensive powers over policing, justice, education and healthcare are to devolve to municipalities, allowing Kosovo's Serbs a large measure of self-government. There is to be special protection for the Serb Orthodox Church, whose monasteries in Kosovo Serbs regard as a defining part of their national identity. There are to be facilities to help guarantee the return of Serb and other refugees to Kosovo.
The rush to pass fresh legislation is unlikely to foster parliamentary oversight. A two-week public debate on the constitution, launched at end-January, prompted widespread criticism because the draft was not published beforehand, and many of the meetings attracted so few participants that local town hall staff were asked to act as the audience.
EU mission. The deployment of EULEX, under French General Yves de Karmebon, a former commander of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR), is to begin within days. It will, in practice, replace UNMIK, over a transitional period of 120 days. However, a small, residual UN presence is almost certain to remain, since Russia is unlikely to agree to its dismantling.
EULEX will have several key tasks, and face a number of difficulties:
It will provide a 1,500-strong police contingent to supervise and assist the predominantly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Police Service. Judges and prosecutors will provide expertise in tackling crime and administering impartial justice in a region where clan and family loyalties as well as intimidation have seriously impaired the functioning of the judiciary. Most Serbs, particularly in the four Serb-controlled northern municipalities, will almost certainly not cooperate with EULEX, as it is being deployed without specific UN authorisation, and they view it as a tool for consolidating Kosovo's independence. In time, Kosovo's Albanians are likely to become increasingly frustrated with these relics of international supervision, now that they have their own independent state.
Security situation. The change in Kosovo's status -- in the face of Serbia's bitter opposition -- is unlikely to lead to any major confrontation, although increased tension could lead to local clashes:
The 15,000 KFOR peacekeepers, reinforced in early February and assisted by the EU police, are set to stay on to provide overall security.
Serbia has repeatedly said it will not use force to try to prevent Kosovo's separation; given KFOR's presence and the availability of NATO reinforcements, it will not be able to do so.
Kosovo's beleaguered Serbs -- just 5% in a population of 2 million -- are not in a position to pose a major challenge, except in the north, where passive resistance is likely.
Kosovo is to establish over the next year its own force of 2,500 soldiers and 800 reservists.