In violent spasms through the 1990s, the country forged together as Yugoslavia broke apart, its component republics reasserting their independence following vicious ethnic conflicts. Today, another section of the Balkans, the province of Kosovo, emerges out of the chaos of the ’90s as Europe’s newest independent country.
The transition from a province under U.N. protection to independence is remarkable progress, hard won in a restive region where the long presence of ethnic conflict continues to pose enormous political challenges. Landlocked in an area about half the size of Vermont and with a population of less than 2 million, Kosovo is engaged in the difficult and uncertain task of creating a viable, modern democracy that rises above its recent violent past and ethnic and religious divisions.
In 1999, NATO troops succeeded, after an 11-week bombing campaign, in halting a bloody war and ethnic cleansing conducted by Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians to enforce Serb control over the province. With backing from the United States and Western governments, the United Nations subsequently created the Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo to help maintain stability and protect the lives and rights of Kosovo’s population, including the Serb minority.
Kosovo declared itself independent in February 2008, a move the International Court of Justice has ruled did not violate international law. All the same, a U.N.-sponsored International Civilian Office has overseen the past four years the evolution of a democratic government and institutions. When the office closes today in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, it will signal the end of foreign oversight and the launch of a fully functional elected government with control over its courts, parliament and constitution.
The trajectory in Kosovo in the years since the war illustrates the difficulties and also the potential triumphs of foreign policy in a world wracked by civil conflicts. Kosovo’s survival was the result of aggressive direct intervention by the United States and NATO allies followed by years of U.N. protection and oversight. But too often there is little political will to take on the financial and personnel responsibility to intervene in civil conflicts in sovereign states — whether it is for concerted international action to stop genocide in Darfur or massacres in Libya or Syria.
If Kosovo is a triumph of international intervention, the country also demonstrates the long-term demands of nation-building. The Kosovar leaders recognize the challenge the country faces to safeguard minority rights, religious freedom and cultural autonomy, all part of the bargain to win international recognition and the integration into Europe that will assure it a measure of political and economic stability.
So far 91 countries, including the United States, have recognized an independent Kosovo and the promise it holds that other strife-torn countries can build a path out of violence and chaos.