The next six weeks are likely to be critical for Kosovo as the United Nations administered territory prepares to declare its independence from Serbia. VOA's Barry Wood in Pristina reports on the diplomacy and external events that are shaping Kosovo's future.
This is a time of transition in Kosovo as the UN administration prepares to ultimately hand over power to the Kosovo government and a European Union supervisory authority.
The principal concern for Kosovo's nearly two million ethnic Albanians, 95 percent of the population, is the timing of the impending declaration of independence, expected to be backed by the United States and most of the 27 EU member states. It is expected before the end of March.
The effort to determine Kosovo's status has dragged on since 1999 when NATO intervened to halt Serbian excesses in fighting an Albanian insurgency. The 78 day NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian troops out of Kosovo and they were replaced with a U.N. administration and a NATO-led security force that today numbers some 15,000.
While Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 was ousted in a popular revolt in Serbia, his democratically chosen successors remain opposed to Kosovo's independence, the key demand of the territory's Albanian majority.
Russia in recent years aligned itself with Serbia and has blocked in the Security Council a UN plan for conditional independence. Convinced that Balkan security requires Kosovo independence, the Americans and Europeans have agreed to bypass the U.N. and endorse Kosovo's declaration of independence.
Kosovo's government is delaying its declaration until after Sunday's second round in Serbia's presidential election. The pro-western incumbent, Boris Tadic, says he will not deploy the Serbian army to contest the independence declaration but the stance of his Radical Party challenger is uncertain. Control of the army is the principal power of the Serbian president.
Bajram Rexhepi, a top official in Kosovo's ruling Democratic Party (PDK), is the mayor of the divided city of Mitrovica, which has been a flashpoint for ethnic violence. Its northern sector is inhabited by over 20,000 Serbs and there are fears that the north will not accept independence. Dr. Rexhepi is particularly concerned about the post-independence disposition of North Mitrovica's several hundred Serbian police, who are part of the Kosovo Protection Service, KPS.
"I am worried that they will leave [discard] their KPS uniforms and wear civilian clothes. To change uniforms, to use uniforms of Serbia, according to my knowledge is impossible because of commitments by KFOR [NATO's Kosovo force] and Unmik [UN Kosovo administration] police. They will not tolerate any other uniforms," said Dr. Rexhepi.
The area north of the Ibar River that divides Mitrovica is outside of the control of the Kosovo government. Peacekeeping troops led by a French commander patrol this northern region that is adjacent to Serbia proper. Dr. Rexhepi appealed to Serbs in the north to remain peaceful and cooperate with Albanians to improve living standards on both sides of the ethnic divide.