Kosovo -- What's at Stake?

Kosovo independence was a given; the big question always has been how Serbia would react when the day came.

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The early returns are discouraging for a harmonious transition to independence for Kosovo. The week following Kosovo's dramatic declaration of independence saw sporadic violence in both Serbia and Kosovo, and the international community dividing itself into supporters and opponents of the declaration.

While it's unclear how the situation will unfold in the weeks and months ahead, it will certainly be to no one's benefit if the unrest intensifies and the violence of the 1990s resurfaces. Kosovo, Serbia, the European Union, and NATO will all have major roles to play in stabilizing the situation and ensuring that we don't have a return of the ethnic divisions and strife that have plagued this region for far too long.

The seeds of Kosovo's bid for independence were sown back in 1989, when Slobodan Milosovic, then President of Serbia stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in an effort to consolidate Serbian power. In the early 1990s, as the former Yugoslavia crumbled, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia Herzegovina all declared independence, but Kosovo remained under Serbian control. The Dayton agreement of 1995, which effectively ended the conflicts that erupted following these moves for independence, failed to end questions regarding the final status of Kosovo.

After the Kosovo Liberation Army rebelled against Serbian rule, Milosevic ordered a crackdown on the majority ethnic Albanian population, and an ethnic cleansing campaign followed. Thousands of ethnic Albanians were killed and tens of thousands were forced from their homes and fled into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. NATO forces, operating under a U.N. mandate, drove Serbian troops from Kosovo in 1999, and the U.N. has administered the region ever since.

In 2007, U.N. special envoy Martii Ahtisaari determined that independence for Kosovo was the only viable option, and representatives from the United States, the European Union, and Russia (the "troika") gave up on trying to broker a deal between Serbia and Kosovo. Soon afterwards, Kosovo made it clear that it would work with Western backers towards a declaration of independence, which would come early in 2008. Thus, no one was surprised when Kosovo took action on February 17. The big question has always been how Serbia would react when the day came.

Serbia's near-term actions will set the tone for the rest of the international community and will go a long way in determining whether Kosovo can make a peaceful transition to independence. While 90 percent of Kosovo's population is Albanian, Serbians have been in the region for centuries and view Kosovo as sacred territory. It is understandable, then, that many Serbs are saddened by the loss of Kosovo. But after the ugly ethnic cleansing campaign against the Albanian majority in Kosovo, Serbia's claims that the independence declaration amounts to a violation of international law rings a little hollow.

While the government of Serbia wants Kosovo back, the majority of ordinary Serbs want E.U. membership more. Serbia must realize that its recent moves to turn a blind eye to rioting in Kosovo and to punish countries diplomatically for recognizing Kosovo are only damaging Serbia's long-term prospects for E.U. membership.

Serbia will have to decide whether it wants to be stuck in the past or look to the future. And if Serbia takes a more cooperative approach, hopefully Russia, Serbia's biggest ally in the fight against international recognition for Kosovo, would follow suit.

Kosovo, on the other hand, must live up to its word to promote a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo, and protect the rights of the Serbian minority. Any Albanian violence or backlash against Serb enclaves would certainly incite Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia, furthering the risk of Serbia exerting control of north Kosovo, which is home to many ethnic Serbs. Like Serbia, Kosovo is also counting on future E.U. membership. It knows that it would hurt its E.U. prospects if it doesn't follow through with its promise to welcome Serbs into the new nation.

Finally, the European Union and NATO will continue to have a strong influence on how Kosovo develops, and must take this responsibility very seriously. The E.U. will be sending in more than 1,900 police, customs, and judicial officials shortly, who will take over from the U.N. in the coming months and help Kosovo administer its new country. The E.U. will need to monitor this transition closely, as this effort – to nurture a new, previously war torn country and get it ready for E.U. accession – is a massive undertaking. NATO, for its part, will need to step up its efforts to help protect the Serbian minority within Kosovo, and do more to patrol Kosovo's border with Serbia.