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KOSOVO / SERBIA

Kosovo officially declares independence from Serbia

Kosovo officially declared independence from Serbia on Sunday. Kosovo’s parliament voted to adopt a declaration of independence at an extraordinary session on the province’s independence from Serbia.

Kosovo now is “an independent, sovereign and democratic state,” Parliament Speaker Jakup Krasniqi announced after lawmakers voted 109-0 through a show of hands to approve the declaration. Kosovo’s President Fatmir Sejdiu said that “from this moment, the political position of Kosovo has changed. We, the democratically elected leaders of our people, hereby declare Kosovo to be an independent and sovereign state,” read the declaration. “This declaration reflects the will of our people and it is in full accordance with the recommendations of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari,” it said.

The declaration also expressed Kosovo’s hope to join the European Union. “For reasons of culture, geography and history, we believe our future lies with the European family.” It commits Kosovo to developing good neighborly relations with Serbia and promote national reconciliation in Kosovo. The declaration was read out in parliament by Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. In a speech prior to the vote, Thaci promised to protect the rights of Serbs living in Kosovo. “In this historic day I wish to reaffirm our political will to create the necessary conditions to respect and to protect diversity and to improve community relations in Kosovo,” he said.

But Serbian President Boris Tadic said “Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo. Serbia has reacted and will react with all peaceful, diplomatic and legal means to annul this act committed by Kosovo’s institutions,” Tadic said. “I appeal to all our citizens in Serbia and in Kosovo to be led by reason,” he said. Meanwhile, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica labeled the breakaway province as “a false state,” saying “the government will annul all documents that relate to the creation of a false state on the sovereign territory of the Republic of Serbia.” He also slashed US President George W. Bush and NATO for backing Kosovo’s independence, accusing the United States of placing “the policy of force above the UN Charter” to “further its own military interests. The president of the United States, who is responsible for this violence, as well as his European followers, will be inscribed in the history of Serbia with black letters, and also in the history of international law on which the world’s order is based,” Kostunica said.

Kosovo is a cultural heartland of Serbia. But most of Kosovo’s 2 million people are ethnic Albanians, who had been impatient with delays of the proclamation of independence. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians took to the street for celebrations. They marched through the main streets in downtown Pristina, waving Albania’s national flag as Kosovo has yet to have its own. Revelers also chanted and danced in the streets.

Kosovo has been under UN administration since mid-1999, after NATO air strikes drove out Serbian forces from the province. In April 2007, Ahtisaari recommended internationally supervised independence for Kosovo. The Ahtisaari plan is supported by the United States and the EU, but opposed by Serbia and Russia. Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has warned that Kosovo independence would set a dangerous precedent for regions across the world where there are ethnic tensions.

Mixed responses from international community

Russia condemned Kosovo’s proclamation, and demanded an urgent UN Security Council meeting on the issue, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We expect the UN Mission in Kosovo and NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) will take immediate action to fulfill their mandates as authorized by the UN Security Council, including voiding the decisions of the Pristina local government and adopting severe administrative measures against them,” said the statement.

The Spanish government on Sunday expressed its opposition to Kosovo’s independence, saying it is beyond international laws for Kosovo to unilaterally declare its separation from Serbia. It also said the declaration would harm peace in the Balkan region, setting a dangerous precedent for regions where separatism exits.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus warned Sunday that Kosovo’s independence could trigger a domino effect in other European countries. “Some parties in other states could realize that they do not feel completely at ease within a big state in which they are now,” Klaus said in a television interview. Czech Foreign Ministry spokesman Zuzana Opletalova said the ministry has taken note of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, but it is up to the EU to adopt a joint position regarding the recognition of the independence.

The Slovak Foreign Ministry said on Sunday, that it will not recognize Kosovo as an independent state for now. It will consider its next steps according to further developments and measures international organizations would take, the ministry said.

Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu said on Sunday that Romania’s stand on Kosovo’s independence remains the same, as his country will not recognize the Serbian province’s independence.

Georgia also voiced its objection to Kosovo’s independence, a parliamentary leader said Sunday. “The Georgian authorities will not recognize Kosovo’s independence,” Interfax news agency quoted Konstantin Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee for foreign affairs, as saying.

The Republic of Srspka in Bosnia and Herzegovina also rejected the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo, the official Tanjug news agency reported. “The Republika Srpska does not recognize or accept the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo-Metohija,” a joint statement by the leadership in the Bosnia Serbs entity said.

However, some countries have directly or indirectly offered support to Kosovo’s independence, while some others haven’t decided yet. The United States on Sunday refrained from recognizing Kosovo’s independence, saying instead that its government has noticed the declaration. A statement by the U.S. government said it is reviewing the issue and discussing the matter with its European partners, adding that a statement will be issued shortly. Albanians have been preparing for celebrations of Kosovo’s independence declaration, with concerts and fireworks display in Tirana, capital of Albania.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance, which has 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, “urges all parties involved to exercise the maximum restraint and moderation.” NATO forces would work to ensure “a safe and secure environment throughout the territory of Kosovo...for all citizens of Kosovo, majority and minority alike, in an impartial manner,” he said.

European Union countries have been split on Kosovo’s act. Its four major member nations, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, along with the United States, were expected Monday to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, while Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain oppose recognizing Kosovo’s move, at least in the short term for fear that it would become a dangerous precedent for other separatist movements. Still others like Malta and Portugal proposed that Kosovo’s future be decided at the UN Security Council.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wished Kosovo “good luck” after the declaration.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on “all parties” Sunday to exercise moderation following the Kosovo’s declaration. “The stability in the region has the highest priority, which requires calm and judgment from all sides involved in the coming days, “ the minister said in a statement after calling his Serbian and Slovenian counterparts. The German government has yet to decide whether it would recognize an officially independent Kosovo.

Britain considers Kosovo’s independence declaration “an important development,” but will wait until Monday to make a formal statement.

Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern said on Sunday that Ireland would eventually recognize Kosovo’s independence. “I will be recommending to the Irish cabinet eventually that we should recognize Kosovo,” he said. He also emphasized the need to form a united EU approach on this matter as much as possible.

The Netherlands and Sweden have both expressed caution over Kosovo’s independence. Both countries said they will not decide whether to recognize the independence of Kosovo until they studied the whole situation carefully.

All EU foreign ministers are due to meet in Brussels on Monday with the issue at the top of their agenda. The ministers from the four major member countries supporting Kosovo’s move are expected to give their formal backing to its independence, while trying to persuade other member states to follow suit, in a bid to reach a consensus among most of the 27 EU states.

Bulgaria will announce its position on Kosovo’s declaration of independence after EU foreign ministers’ meeting, the country’s Foreign Ministry said. Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre called all parties to do their utmost to maintain calm and order in and around Kosovo. “Throughout the status negotiations, Norway has stressed the importance of finding a solution both parties could agree to and that thus also could lead to a new UN Security Council resolution. It is deeply regrettable that this has not been possible,” Støre said in a statement.

The Egyptian government has also voiced concern over the issue, saying it is closely following up the development in the Balkan region. However, it did not mention whether it will recognize Kosovo’s independence. “Abiding by rules and principles of international law and international legitimacy are the best way to achieve cherished stability in the region,” an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

(BBJ 18.ii.08)