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Split in EU could undermine Kosovo

Violence erupts amid dispute on independence

A protester talked on a mobile phone after Kosovo Serbs burned down a border crossing in Jarinje yesterday. A protester talked on a mobile phone after Kosovo Serbs burned down a border crossing in Jarinje yesterday. (MARKO DJURICA/Reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Castle and Dan Bilefsky
International Herald Tribune / February 20, 2008

BRUSSELS - Fears that Kosovo's independence will spur secessionism within Europe threatened to undermine the future of the new country even as a divided European Union bought itself time and avoided a disastrous public rift.

More than any other issue, Kosovo is seen as a test of the EU's goal to be a player on the international stage on a par with Washington and to overcome its reputation as an economic powerhouse but a political mite.

The danger of instability was underlined yesterday when violence returned to the region and UN police officers pulled out of two Kosovo border posts destroyed by Serbs who reject the authority of the Kosovo government, which declared independence on Sunday.

The EU has struggled to paper over its internal divisions. Several EU countries - Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Romania, and Cyprus - have refused to recognize Kosovo while other EU countries - France, Germany and Britain - gave it impassioned backing.

Some of the arguments used by Spain are similar to those being heard in Belgrade, Moscow and Beijing: that recognition would breach international law and inspire separatists elsewhere.

EU states squabbled over the limits of international law but have deployed a 2,000-strong judicial and police mission to Kosovo. After hours of negotiation, a carefully drafted agreement made by European foreign ministers Monday endorsed the EU mission and financial aid for Kosovo, but analysts and EU diplomats concede this is little more than a temporary solution.

"We might end up with a situation where Kosovo has limited international legitimacy, cannot make many commercial deals and cannot receive much money from international institutions," Antonio Missiroli, a director of studies at the European Policy Center research institute in Brussels, said.

Yesterday, there was no let-up from Russia, whose Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, had spoken by telephone Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During the call, the statement said, Lavrov warned of "dangerous consequences" that "could destroy the principles of world order and the international stability that have been established for decades."

Meanwhile, the risks were illustrated when a mob of Kosovo Serbs burned two border posts in the northern part of Kosovo, prompting NATO troops to intervene and fanning fears that the Serb-dominated north could boil over and entrench a partition of Kosovo.

In Jarnije and Banja, about 18 miles, north of Mitrovica, the police said several hundred Serb men had used plastic explosives and bulldozers to attack the two posts. They vandalized and set fire to passport control booths. No one was injured.

NATO troops later closed down the roads leading to the checkpoints, cutting off the only link between northern Kosovo and Serbia. Police said 700 to 1,000 Serbs had traveled from Serbia to Mitrovica yesterday and the roads had been closed to prevent militants from entering and taking up arms. Fears were growing Tuesday night that Serbia could send police forces to the north and seek to partition the territory.

The police said they were stopping buses traveling inside Kosovo and weapons had been confiscated. "This seems to have been an organized operation," Veton Elshani, a police spokesman, said. Local Serbs said the attacks appeared to have been triggered by rumors that Kosovo's new flag was about to be raised at the posts.

The violence - the worst since independence was declared - came as the EU foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, arrived in Pristina yesterday to congratulate ethnic Albanian leaders and to assure them that the planned EU mission was on track.

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