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February 17, 2008

ON SUNDAY February 17th Kosovo declared that it had become the seventh state to emerge from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia. According to a plan worked out by Kosovo's leaders with foreign counterparts, recognition of the new country is likely to follow from Monday onwards, by America, many European Union countries and others.

Tens of thousands of people packed the centre of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to celebrate. Posters were plastered across the city, thanking America, Britain and the EU for their support.

Technically Kosovo was a province of Serbia, although its jurisdiction passed to the UN in 1999. Serbia, strongly supported by Russia has said that Kosovo's independence is an illegal act of secession and it will not recognise it. Serbia is set to lower, but not break, diplomatic relations with any state that recognises Kosovo.

Of Kosovo's 2m people some 90% are ethnic Albanians who have long demanded independence. There are believed to be fewer than 130,000 Serbs in Kosovo today. About half live in a compact territory in the north, the rest in enclaves scattered across the rest of the territory.

This is the second time Kosovo has declared independence. The first time in 1991, it was recognised by no one except Albania. This time it will be different, but still Kosovo will not become a state equal with all others. Russia will block its membership of the UN and all other international bodies where it has a veto. A big EU mission is beginning to deploy, with a mandate to keep control of police and justice in the territory. Another part of the mission is supposed to make sure that Kosovo lives up to various standards its leaders have committed themselves to.

The risk is that Kosovo becomes dependent on these missions and thus simply an EU protectorate, its leaders shoving responsibility for difficult issues on to foreigners all too willing to rule. Given Serbia's hostility to Kosovo's independence, heavy reliance on foreigners will be a necessity in any case. Today Kosovo's security is assured by some 17,000 NATO-led troops. They will remain for years, perhaps decades, to come.

One of the biggest problems now is going to be dealing with Kosovo's Serbian minority which rejects independence—the leadership of Serbia tell them to ignore independence. They will probably do so. In May, Serbia will vote in local elections. This will be a big test. What would, or could, Kosovo's authorities do when Serbs hold these polls in other parts of Kosovo? Much will become clear in the next few days. Some of Kosovo's power comes from Serbia. Will that be cut? Will Serbia close the border to Kosovo-Albanians and anyone doing business with them?

On Friday Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's prime minister, addressed journalists saying that all would be done to look after and protect minorities in Kosovo. It was a moment pregnant with symbolism. Since no one had bothered to provide a translation none of the now angry Serbian journalists had a clue what he was saying. For too long Serbs and Albanians have been talking at each other not to each other. In the short term this is bound to get worse. Serbia has also, for now, angrily opted to put aside its efforts to join the EU.

Once the parties end difficult problems must be tackled. Serbs in the north will protest against independence. Kosovo's weak economy will still be weak. Kosovo's neighbours, Macedonia and Montenegro are also bracing for trouble, worried that a vengeful Serbia will take harsh measures against them if they recognise the new state.

For years diplomats dealing with Kosovo have tried to find a way to achieve what was called “final status”. Today most Albanians are delirious, but it is unclear whether they have understood that what is happening now is not final, but rather just the end of a chapter. “We had hoped we'd be finishing the book by now,” says one diplomatic source ruefully. Ylber Hysa, a Kosovo Albanian analyst, says that as far as he is concerned the important thing is not so much independence as getting "Serbia out."

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