Joy in Kosovo, Anger in Serbia

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Visar Kryeziu / AP

A Kosovar Albanian woman waves a flag as she and others celebrate Kosovo's declaration of independence in Pristina, Sunday, February 17, 2008.

The parliament of the disputed province of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, triggering a massive street party in the capital of Pristina and angry protests by Serbia and Russia. The move, endorsed by the U.S. and most of European countries, came after a series of failed attempts to reach a compromise between Serbs and Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanians through direct talks or in the U.N. Security Council.

Kosovo's political status had been undetermined since 1999, when Serbian forces were forced to withdraw under NATO bombs. The province was then placed under U.N. control. Now, Kosovo's elected government is expected to assume more authority, although it will still be closely monitored by members of the newly established European Union mission. The EU will also provide much of the new nation's police force and judiciary, while some 17,000 NATO troops will continue to secure peace.

"We have waited for this day for a very long time," Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told the parliament before reading the declaration at 3 p.m. on Sunday. "The independence of Kosovo marks the end of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia," he said, adding that "Kosovo was a unique case that should not set a precedent." Outside, the crowd cheered in the biggest celebration Pristina has ever seen. Ethnic Albanians started their celebrations on Saturday, with cars circling the streets of the capital draped with the flags of Albania and the United States, dancing to the sound of traditional drums, and fireworks.

This was in stark contrast with the mood in Belgrade which was, at best, gloomy, as most Serbs see Kosovo as their historic heartland. Minutes after Thaci finished reading the declaration in Pristina, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica addressed the nation in Belgrade, declaring Kosvo's independence "null and void." "Kosovo's unilateral declaration of a false state is the final act of a policy that started with the NATO aggression against Serbia in 1999," the Prime Minister said in a televised speech spiked with harsh anti-Western sentiments. Most of Kostunica's anger was directed towards the United States in general and President George Bush in particular. "The President of the United States, who is responsible for this violation, will be noted in black letters in Serbian history books, along with his European followers," Kostunica said. Serbian pro-Western President Boris Tadic also condemned the independence move, although in somewhat milder terms.

Hours later, some several hundred angry protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Belgrade, wielding sticks and stones and chanting nationalist slogans. The anti-riot police dispersed the crowd, which then directed its anger towards the nearby McDonald's venue, trashed the windows, and threw a Molotov cocktail inside. The embassy of Slovenia, which recently took over the chairmanship of the Europen Union, was also trashed. All in all, according to official reports, some 30 persons were injured, including seven policemen.

There was violence as well in Kosovo. In the predominantly Serbian town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, a hand grenade was thrown into the yard of a U.N.-occupied building, causing slight damage and injuring no one. Another grenade was found unexploded nearby, a U.N. police spokesman said.

Apart from these minor incidents, fears that Kosovo's independence could trigger a wave of violence in the Balkans have so far not materialized. Serbia has announced that it will boycott Thaci's government as well as the newly established European Union mission to Kosovo. However, Belgrade stopped short of making any military threats towards the renegade province or the international peacekeepers. Serbia is also expected to withdraw ambassadors from any country that recognizes Kosovo, but will not completely severe diplomatic relations with any of them, according to diplomatic sources in Belgrade. The United States recognized the new state on Monday. The European Union is divided. France, Britain, Germany and Italy have all recognized Kosovo. But a number of countries may not, including Spain, Romania, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Slovakia.