Serbia's Final Frontier?

After spending almost a decade in political limbo, Kosovo is finally an independent state. Sort of.

On February 17, the government in Pristina declared its independence from Serbia. Although Kosovo acted without UN approval, the United States and Europe's major powers swiftly recognized the new statelet. Serbia and Russia, along with China and over a dozen other countries, moved equally swiftly to pronounce the secession null and void.

A nasty mess has ensued. Violent protests broke out in Serbia and Kosovo's north, protesters torched the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Republika Srpska is being pushed by its radical Serbs to follow Kosovo's lead and break away from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Moscow is accusing the United States of trampling on international law and risking another round of bloodshed in the Balkans.

It was not meant to happen this way. When Washington began pushing for negotiations on Kosovo's final status, its intent was to write the last chapter of Yugoslavia's demise, thereby clearing the way for U.S. troops to end their long sojourn in the Balkans. But if the United States and EU are to escape with limited damage and fulfill their expectations that Kosovo's independence bring to a close the region's long history of ethnic conflict, they will have to address several key challenges in the weeks ahead.

THE MORNING AFTER

The biggest test will be handling northern Kosovo--which is predominantly Serb and home to about one-third of Kosovo's Serb minority. The United States and the European Union must either prevent the north from breaking away from the new state, or manage its peaceful secession if partition proves inevitable. During the past decade of UN trusteeship, northern Kosovo resisted integration with the rest of the province and remained politically and institutionally tied to Serbia. Moreover, the Serbs in the north have no interest whatsoever in being part of the new state. Hence the attacks that have taken place on the border posts between Serbia and northern Kosovo, a territorial boundary that Serbs on both sides refuse to accept. Thus far, police units and NATO troops have kept a lid on the violence while U.S. and EU officials insist that the partition of Kosovo is unacceptable. But even if it is unacceptable, the reality is that the north's secession may be unstoppable.

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