The tortuous break-up of the former Yugoslavia that began in the 1990s produced another country on Sunday. Nine years after NATO troops forced Serbia out of the province, Kosovo has unilaterally declared independence. Many Western countries are now on the verge of recognizing Kosovo as Europe's latest country but Serbia and its ally Russia regard the declaration as illegal. And many countries with their own separatist groups, from Spain to Sri Lanka, are reluctant to set a precedent by recognizing this new state.
On Monday EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss the declaration. While it is left to separate countries rather than the EU to recognize new nations, the bloc is hoping for a show of some unity in how it reacts to the new situation in the Balkans. Before going into the meeting, Slovenia's Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel, who is hosting the meeting, said he believes "many" of the 27 EU nations would recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
The United Kingdom, France and Germany are expected to announce recognition as early as Monday. Arriving at the meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the failure of talks between the Serbs and Kosovo-Albanians had made the declaration inevitable. "A negotiated solution was not possible. That is why we cannot now escape this event," he said.
However, at least six member states -- Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Spain, Bulgaria and Romania -- have indicated they will not recognize Kosovo due to misgivings about their own separatist movements or because of close ties with Serbia.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in Brussels on Monday there was no "race" to recognition. "We are involved in trying to secure the stability of a very volatile region at a critical period in time. We have to do it with care."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, arriving for the meeting in Brussels, urged calm on all sides. "The EU has already decided to send a mission, a mission of stability, a mission of rule of law. It should contribute to the stability of the Balkans." On Saturday, on the eve of the much anticipated declaration, the EU agreed to send some 2,000 police, justice and civil administrators to Kosovo and to help build institutions there.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci declared Kosovo an independent and sovereign state on Sunday. The 109 deputies present in Kosovo's parliament unanimously backed the declaration, while the 11 ethnic minority deputies, most of them Serbs, were absent.
Minutes afterwards Serb Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica branded it a "false state," which had been propped up by a United States "ready to violate the international order for its own military interests."
In Serbia there were some clashes between riot police and protestors who stoned Western embassies in Belgrade on Sunday, while a few hand grenades were thrown at UN buildings in the northern part of Kosovo, inhabited largely by Serbs.
Russia tried to block Kosovo's independence barely hours after it was declared on Sunday, calling an emergency closed-door session of the United Nations Security Council, but it failed to get backing to declare the Kosovo decision "null and void."
Russia argues that the declaration violates a 1999 UN resolution that authorizes the UN to administer the territory. Russia's ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said: "It is not obvious at all what could possibly be the legal basis for even considering" the declaration. He also addressed concerns about the Serbs living in Kosovo. "We'll strongly warn against any attempts at repressive measures, should Serbs in Kosovo decide not to comply with this unilateral proclamation of independence," he told reporters.
The United Nations has proved to be an impossible route for resolving the crisis. In April 2007 the UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari recommended that Kosovo be granted internationally supervised independence, but Russia used its veto to block the plan at the Security Council. Three months of further negotiations between the Serbs and the Kosovo-Albanians headed by a troika of diplomats from the US, Russia and the EU also failed to break the deadlock.
Belgium's Ambassador Johan Verbeke said on Sunday that the Security Council route would no longer provide a way forward, adding that "this impasse has been clear for many months." In a statement agreed by seven Western nations including Belgium, France, Germany and the US, he said that the day's events "represent the conclusion of a status process that has exhausted all avenues in pursuit of a negotiated outcome."
China, another veto power, announced Monday that it was "deeply concerned" about the future of the region. "The unilateral approach by Kosovo may cause a series of consequences and lead to severe negative influences on the peace and stability of the Balkan region," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Kosovo was a unique case and did not set a precedent for other breakaway regions in the world while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said independence was "a great success for Europe" and not a defeat for Serbia, which has the prospect of joining the European Union.
The main concern now is to avoid any outbreaks of violence. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US called on "all parties to exert the utmost restraint and refrain from any provocative act."
NATO said it would continue to provide security and deal firmly with any violence. "All parties should recognize that KFOR will continue to fulfil its responsibility for a safe and secure environment throughout the territory of Kosovo," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement on Sunday.
Fears that the move could inspire other separatist movements were confirmed almost immediately. On Sunday the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossietia and Abkhazia announced that in the light of Kosovo's move, they would ask Russia and the UN to recognize their independence. And on Monday Chechen rebels fighting to secede from Russia hailed Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, comparing Pristina's fight against Serbia to their own struggle against Moscow.