Kosovo Wins Support For Split From Serbia

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

Nearly eight years after NATO warplanes intervened in a bitter ethnic conflict between Serbs and rebellious Kosovo Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, the United States and its European allies have agreed to support Kosovo's permanent secession from Serbia under continuing international supervision, according to senior U.S. and European officials.

The decision is likely to lead, possibly as early as this summer, to the formal creation of a new Connecticut-size country in southeastern Europe with membership in the United Nations and, eventually, its own army, the officials said. But a foreign diplomat posted in the capital would retain authority to fire officials and rescind legislation deemed divisive, while leaving routine matters of government to local control.

Under the plan, NATO troops would continue to patrol the new state to ensure peace and help protect minorities, but would gradually withdraw as Kosovo neared membership in NATO and the European Union.

Putting Kosovo on a path toward eventual full independence is meant to close a chapter of Balkan history marked by war, political upheaval, widespread loss of life and the destruction of billions of dollars' worth of property.

Historically a province of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999. That year, a 78-day air campaign by NATO forced out the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, ending its brutal war against guerrillas fighting for self-rule for the province's ethnic Albanian majority. Many members of Kosovo's Serb minority have since fled Albanian retribution.

The new plan, a culmination of lengthy diplomatic consultations between nervous continental Europeans and more enthusiastic Americans and British, is meant in part to alleviate continuing intense pressure from the Albanians for independence. Western officials fear that without official action on the issue, new violence might break out this summer.

Officials say that finally allowing Kosovo to stand mostly on its own also has a major economic impetus: They anticipate it would open the door to private investment, new Western lending and aid, supplanting more than $2.5 billion already poured into the province by foreigners since 1999 with only a slight impact on a faltering and highly corrupt economy.

Kosovo has Europe's largest deposits of lignite coal. Economic planners hope that the new state might build power plants and emerge as a primary supplier of electricity to its Balkan neighbors.

Some diplomats caution that achievement of consensus by the Western powers might not be the end of the tale: Serbia's leaders have persistently and heatedly campaigned against any forced separation of one of their country's provinces. Many Serbs now look toward Moscow to protect their interests with a veto when the matter is presented to the U.N. Security Council for a vote, likely this spring.

Moscow has privately hinted, however, that it is prepared to support the plan in exchange for U.S. and European acquiescence to the formal secession of two Russian-backed regions of Georgia. Washington and its allies oppose that Russian bid, and officials said this week they are uncertain how quickly this diplomatic dance will play out.

The eventual formal redrawing of Serbia's border by foreign powers has been widely expected since 1999. Nonetheless, the prospect of Kosovo's independence has sown anxiety among some of Kosovo's ethnically divided Balkan neighbors and even caused hesitation in Spain, where unresolved secessionist pressures persist in the Basque region.

Moreover, diplomats say no Western nation is eager to see Serbia so alienated by an imposed Western solution that it is driven more deeply into Russia's arms and excluded from eventual embrace by NATO and the European Union.

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