By Peter Finn and Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo, Feb. 19 -- The United States and the European Union's largest countries recognized the independence of Kosovo on Monday, 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 U.S. embassy there and inviting Kosovo to establish a diplomatic mission in Washington. Asked Tuesday about Russia's opposition, Bush told reporters, "There's a disagreement, but we believe as do many other nations that history will prove this to be the correct move."
In a letter Monday to President Fatmir Sejdiu, Bush said, "On behalf of the American people, I hereby recognize Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who first announced the U.S. 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, dominated by ethnic Albanians. The decision has divided the European Union, which is to supervise independence and replace a U.N. mission that has acted as the province's overseer since Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo in 1999.
What happens 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 U.N. mission here and turn it over to the E.U.
At an emergency U.N. Security Council session, Serbian President Boris Tadic warned that Kosovo's act would embolden other separatists and that Serbia's relations with Kosovo's supporters would be harmed. "If you allow this illegal act to stand," he told council members, "you will show that right and justice may go unrespected in the world. You will show that, unfortunately, this body of the world organization is losing its authority."
Tadic reiterated Serbia's commitment to forgo violence against Kosovo, but his foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, said, "Serbia is going to fight tooth and nail, diplomatically and politically" to reverse this "illegal decision."
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made it clear that the United Nations would continue to support Kosovo as it begins its transition to full independence, but he sidestepped a question about whether Kosovo's declaration was legal. "I know that the independence of Kosovo has been recognized by a number of countries, and I'd like to remind you that the recognition of states is for the states and not for the U.N. Secretariat," Ban said. "I'm not here to say if it is legal or illegal."
American and some E.U. diplomats say they think Ban can order the transition without referring the issue to the Security Council, where Russia holds veto power.
Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, an official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, told the news agency Interfax that Moscow "expects the head of the U.N. 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. The vast majority of them appear determined not to cooperate with E.U. oversight, though it is intended to guarantee their rights in Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
Thousands of Serbs marched in this divided city Monday chanting, "This is Serbia!" Much of northwestern Kosovo 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 E.U. 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 Monday'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 isolated Serb communities south of Mitrovica.
Serb leaders said Kosovo would never become a truly independent state because Russia and Serbia would 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 Monday's protest in Mitrovica, where portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin adorn shop windows. "America is no longer the single world power."
The formal U.S. 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 Kosovo's independence could bolster separatist impulses among its own population, forcefully refused to recognize Kosovo. Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia are also expected to decline to recognize it.
The E.U. was able to agree on a supervisory mission because it was settled before Kosovo declared independence, thus avoiding any de facto recognition of its new status by countries that are opposed to it.
Charles Grant, of the Center for European Reform in London, said that the divisions "make the E.U. 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."
Baker reported from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and correspondent John Ward Anderson in Paris contributed to this report.