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EU prepares for Kosovo independence

  • Story Highlights
  • EU official says decision on "security and justice" force likely this week
  • The province is expected to declare independence before the week is out
  • 1,800-member EU force will take over from U.N. police in Kosovo
  • Russia and neighboring Serbia remain opposed to independence bid
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(CNN) -- A European Union official said Monday it is "likely" the union will authorize a "security and justice" force for Kosovo this week, ahead of an expected declaration of independence by the state's newly elected leader.

Kosovo's prime minister-elect Hashim Thaci is expected to declare independence from Serbia.

The EU official spoke on the condition he not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The European Union has long planned a transitional force for Kosovo, which, for now, is a part of Serbia.

The province is expected to declare independence by the week's end.

Serbia opposes plans for its province to break away -- as does Russia, Serbia's historical ally, which has promised to block any recognition of an independent Kosovo at the United Nations.

Despite the harsh words from opponents, analysts say they don't expect violence. Serbia's displeasure at an independent Kosovo is tempered by its president's ambition to join the European Union, which supports independence, and regional neighbors such as Albania and Macedonia are cautious.

Observers have anticipated Kosovo's independence for months, ever since two years of U.N-sponsored talks to determine Kosovo's final status ended without agreement.

The pace accelerated last month when Kosovo's assembly approved former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci as prime minister. He made declaring independence his top priority, and over the weekend, Thaci said he had finally set a date.

"This weekend will be the last one before Kosovo declares independence," Thaci said Saturday.

Indicating it expected an imminent declaration, the European Union was finalizing plans to send an 1,800-member security and justice force to Kosovo, an EU official said Monday. The force, approved by EU leaders in December, will gradually take over from U.N. police and also will include judicial and legal personnel.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority will be under close scrutiny after independence, especially about honoring the rights of the Serbian minority, who currently live in enclaves protected by NATO forces. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo outnumber other ethnic groups, the largest being the Orthodox Christian Serbs, by about 9 to 1.

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Protected Serbs have expressed fears of being further cut off from Kosovar society, and some even talk of leaving Kosovo altogether.

But Kosovo Albanians say memories of their persecution at the hands of the Serbs in the late 1990s are too fresh to reciprocate, and analysts say they're not likely to.

"The one thing the U.N. and the Kosovar government have done very well is stressing the right of the remaining Serbs to remain in place," said Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform in London.

Valasek said the United Nations, which has administered Kosovo since 1999, has worked closely with Kosovo on a policy of "standards before status," making sure the government adheres to international standards -- such as protecting minorities -- before it can declare independence.

Serbian fears may be justifiable, Valasek said, in part because Thaci is the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which rose up against Serb rule at the end of the last decade. But he said Thaci has worked hard to address the concerns.

"I think (Thaci) genuinely wants to be seen as the leader of a country rather than an ethnic guerrilla," Valasek said.

Under international pressure to stop the uprising in Kosovo, Serbia cracked down on its ethnic Albanian population. But in 1999, amid grave human rights abuses in the fighting, NATO forces drove out the Yugoslav troops and ended the war.

About 16,000 NATO troops remain in the province.

Serbia's opposition to Kosovar independence may be rooted in the fact that it has seen its power diminish gradually since the Balkan wars began in the early 1990s, analysts say. As the years have passed, the former Yugoslavia has gradually lost the republics of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Macedonia.

"All the Serbs see is that they've been losing power," said Robin Shepherd, a Europe and Russia analyst with Chatham House, a London think tank. "It also touches upon the sense of a nation in decline, and that's really what makes it a heated problem."

Opposition also comes from Russia, which feels a bond with Serbia as a fellow Slavic Orthodox nation.

"There has always been a strong theme of Slavic brotherhood running through Russian foreign policy," said Valasek. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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