PRISTINA -- Kosovo today marks two years since ethnic-Albanian officials in Pristina unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. Since then, 65 countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state -- including the United States and most of the European Union.
But Belgrade insists that Kosovo is still a province of Serbia, saying the territory was illegally wrested from its control by NATO forces in June 1999 and held as a protectorate until Pristina was able to make its independence claim.
The Serbian government insists it will never recognize Kosovo's independence, and it has successfully lobbied countries like Russia and China to support that view.
For Pristina, that recognition is needed before Kosovo can become a member of the United Nations General Assembly. Experts say Belgrade's position also could determine whether Serbia ultimately is invited to join the European Union.
Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, tells RFE/RL that after two years as a "sovereign and independent country," one of the biggest challenges for Pristina is how to integrate the Serb-majority areas of northern Kosovo -- including areas north of the Ibar River in the divided city of Mitrovica.
Sejdiu says Belgrade has complicated the integration process by setting up parallel government institutions and encouraging Serbs in northern Kosovo to reject Pristina's authority. Sejdiu also says the international community should not tolerate a de facto partition of Kosovo.
"The problems in the north are problems that were here a decade ago, maybe even earlier," Sejdiu told RFE/RL this week. "The efforts [of Belgrade] have always concentrated on finding formulas and potential channels for damaging Kosovo in the post-freedom situation, post-international intervention. You do know that regardless of the international support given in general to Kosovo, Serbia's parallel structures in the north have, unfortunately, been tolerated."Bringing In The North
Together with the International Steering Committee on Kosovo -- a 25-country body tasked with upholding the fledgling country's independence -- Pristina has come up with a plan for the integration of the north.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashem Thaci explains that it took 10 years for Kosovo's local and international institutions to draft the four main points of the so-called "comprehensive approach."
"The first point is the establishment of rule of law. Second is the establishment of a Mitrovica North municipality," Thaci told RFE/RL. "Third is organizing free elections for the three municipalities in Zvecan, Leposavic, and Zubin Potok. Fourth is enhanced engagement for economic development and job creation. To this end, Kosovo's government will set up a special fund."
Pieter Feith, the European Union's special representative in Kosovo, says local acceptance by the Serbian community in northern Kosovo is crucial.
Feith told RFE/RL on February 16 that with proper conditions, work can move forward toward establishing a new municipality in North Mitrovica and organizing local elections there. Once that step is taken, Feith says, governance and links with other municipalities can be extended.
"In the north, [parallel structures] can be replaced by privileged linkages between Belgrade and the population in northern Kosovo," Feith says. "[This] would assure the Kosovo Serb community that they can maintain their traditional way of life, they can receive resources to support education and health, and that we can make best use of the customs revenues that should start flowing again."
But Feith says support from Serbs in northern Kosovo means that Belgrade needs to be brought into the process.
"We would like to consult with Belgrade on further steps with regard to the north, and I'm sure that also from the EU side, there will be further consultations with Belgrade on the situation there," Feith says.Serbian Opposition
The government in Belgrade isn't buying the plan. Oliver Ivanovic, state secretary at the Serbian Ministry for Kosovo-Metohija, as Kosovo is called in Serbia, told RFE/RL recently that Belgrade can't be expected to support an integration plan that, despite Feith's involvement, does not have the formal backing of the European Union.
Five EU nations -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain -- have not recognized Kosovo, largely because of ethnic minority issues of their own.
Analysts tell RFE/RL the problem with the northern integration plan is how to apply it -- including what pressure or incentives the international community will use and, indeed, how much unity there is within the international community for the move.
Janusz Bugajski, the director of the New European Democracies Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, explains why only the local representatives of the EU have endorsed the plan so far.
"The EU, if it stands behind something, has to have unanimity," Bugajski told RFE/RL. "Remember, there are five countries within the EU that do not recognize Kosovo. This is one of the confusions that would somehow have to be skillfully handled."
In fact, many countries that have not recognized Kosovo's independence are waiting for a ruling expected later this year from the International Court of Justice at The Hague. That ruling will determine the merits of Belgrade's claim that Kosovo's declaration of independence was illegal.
Kosovo's President Sejdiu says he sees that case as part of wider efforts by Belgrade, "in every corner of the world," to put pressure on countries to delay recognition of Kosovo.
Sejdiu says he does not want to "prejudge" the ruling from The Hague.
"At the same time," he tells RFE/RL, "I can say there can be no decision which will justify a very hypocritical request of Serbia to undermine Kosovo's statehood -- in a formal and legal sense -- because it can't be undone."
In the end, Bugajski says, Belgrade needs to consider that the larger EU countries and the majority of the bloc already have recognized Kosovo.
Bugajski says that leaves him "absolutely convinced" that Serbia will not get a formal invitation to join the European Union until it accepts the independence of Kosovo.RFE/RL's Arbana Vidishiqi in Pristina and Ron Synovitz in Prague, with contributions from Branka Trivic in Belgrade