Can Independent Kosovo Survive?

Kosovo declared independence Sunday, but it's unlikely any time soon to become the world's 193rd country. What it will almost certainly be is a failed state, unrecognized by the United Nations, unable to govern itself, dependent on Europe for its police and NATO for its armed forces.

After eight years as an international protectorate and billions of dollars in aid and reconstruction funds, its economic prospects are grim. Unemployment is 57 percent, and among youths it's more like 70 percent; half the population is under 25. Small wonder then that its chief export is organized crime. It remains ethnically cleansed of its Serb minority, who only survive in the province under armed guard by NATO. And it has the potential of provoking a wider conflict as other powers try to work out just what to do about yet another intractable Balkan mess.

In theory, Kosovo has been self-governing since NATO bombed the Serbian province for 78 days in 1999, and the United Nations under Security Council Resolution 1244 declared it an autonomous province under U.N. protection but also confirmed that it was part of Serbia. Kosovo was never a federal part of Yugoslavia, as were the other parts that broke away from Serbia's domination; despite its majority Albanian population, its long historical association with Serbia, which regarded it as something akin to the nation's Jerusalem, put it in a different class.

But massacres by Serbian troops in the province led to NATO intervention, and a U.N. mandate. Since then, the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), along with the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has administered all of Kosovo's civil institutions, and NATO's Kosovo Protection Force (KFOR), has provided its military protection. Efforts by the United Nations to broker a deal with Serbia on transition to independence failed last year; with Russia's support, Serbia has been intransigent on giving Kosovo anything more than mere self-rule—well short of full independence.

Finally, Kosovo's elected Parliament met Sunday and Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci read a statement declaring Kosovo "independent, sovereign and democratic." The move was expected, and Albanians filled the streets of their capital, Pristina, waving American and Albanian flags as well as the new Kosovo one (a blue banner with a yellow map of Kosovo under several stars).

But in any real sense, it remains a protectorate. There was no move to turn over U.N.-administered ministries to Kosovars, at least not so far. Because the status of the U.N. mandate is unclear, however, and the Russians will likely veto any extension of it, last week the European Union announced that it would send a 2,000-strong "police and justice" force to the territory, and NATO has said it will continue to provide security with KFOR.

In Serbia, the running joke was that the country was like Nokia: every year there was a new and tinier model of the state Slobodan Milosevic two decades ago sought to makeover into Greater Serbia. There was plenty of anger, as well. The declaration of independence provoked rioting on the streets of Belgrade, with hooligans and ultranationalists stoning police and throwing Molotov cocktails, trying to reach Western targets like the American Embassy and McDonald's outlets. Kosovo looms over the country's messy and unstable political scene; Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, an implacable foe of the EU and America, leads a shaky coalition including pro-Western elements; he called Kosovo's move "the illegitimate declaration of a puppet state on the territory of Serbia." In the recent Serbian presidential election, Boris Tadic, a pro-Western leader, only narrowly defeated the Radical Party candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, who was widely seen as a stand-in for the party's leader, an accused war criminal, Vojislav Seselj, now on trial at the Hague. Nikolic ran on a bellicose position about Kosovo.

No one expects even a more extreme Serbian government to try to invade Kosovo, at least as things stand now. But Serbs are furious about treatment of their minority in Kosovo, about 200,000 of whom have fled since the United Nations and NATO took over, and Albanian gangs began retaliating against Serbs wherever they could. Another massacre might well spark stronger reaction in Serbia, and perhaps even intervention. And unlike 1999, Serbia now has a strong ally in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has been talking tough on the Kosovo issue; the Russians called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to meet Monday. And KFOR is a much weaker force than it originally was, with U.S. troops drawn down for Iraq and other NATO partners worried about staffing Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. secretary of State who was America's point man during the Balkan wars, has previously called for reinforcing KFOR, especially if Kosovo declares independence—which it has just done.

In the coming days, it's widely expected that the United States and many European countries will recognize Kosovo's independence. But Russia will certainly veto its admission to the United Nations. And even the EU will face difficulties internally, with six of its 22 member states unlikely to endorse the move; these include Spain, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Slovakia. For countries like Spain, with its restive Basque region, and Cyprus, where the Turkish north of the country has declared a rump state, Kosovo is a dangerous precedent. It's the first time since World War II that the internal borders of a European country are being redrawn, with the exception of course of Germany. But then, Kosovo is no Germany.