The Big Question: Is Kosovo just an accident of war, and can it thrive as an independent state?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking the question now?

Because today the UN mediator and former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, will give Germany, Britain, France, Italy, the US and Russia their first sight of his plans to resolve the status of Kosovo. The proposal is expected to involve a huge degree of autonomy for Kosovo - which is technically a province of Serbia, although under UN control - but not full and immediate independence.

Mr Ahtisaari is expected to suggest that Kosovo gains the trappings of a country, including a flag, along with the right to enter into international agreements and apply for membership of international organisations and institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Mr Ahtisaari will then travel to Belgrade and Pristina to deliver the news to politicians there on 2 February.

How did history shape Kosovo?

Though Slavs and Albanians have lived side by side in Kosovo since the eighth century, the province was the centre of the Serbian empire until the mid-14th century. Moreover, Serbs regard Kosovo as the birthplace of their state. One of the key moments in history was Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, which led to centuries of rule under the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Serbia regained control of Kosovo in 1913, and the province later became part of the Yugoslav federation.

Throughout the 20th century, the fortunes of the two main ethnic communities fluctuated. Suppression of the Albanians in the 1960s gave way to more tolerance from Belgrade, then more repression. Meanwhile, the demographic balance tipped strongly in favour of ethnic Albanians, who became the overwhelming majority.

What provoked the war with Nato?

Resentment of Kosovan influence within Yugoslavia provided a useful political tool for Serb nationalists, most notably the man who became Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic. When he won that job in 1989, he stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. In the same year, Milosevic made his famous speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters at a celebration marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Milosevic told the crowd that, six centuries after the famous battle, "we are again engaged in battles and are facing battles". These were, he said, "not armed battles", though he added ominously that "such things cannot be excluded yet".

A resistance movement gathered pace among Albanians in the 1990s. Albanian leaders made a unilateral declaration of independence in 1991 and a guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, attacked Serb targets, prompting a crackdown. When Milosevic rejected an international deal to end the crisis, and refused to end his campaign against Kosovo Albanians, Nato began air strikes against targets in Kosovo and Serbia in March 1999.

The repression of the Kosovo Albanians was stepped up and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Despite several public relations disasters (such as bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade), Nato's concerted bombardment succeeded in forcing a Serb retreat from Kosovo. After he fell from power Mr Milosevic was put on trial in The Hague on charges including genocide, though he died before the tribunal finished hearing the case.

What is the situation in Kosovo now?

The province is administered by the UN and relations between the two main communities are tense and sometimes violent. Ethnic Albanians number about 2.1 million, while about 175,000 Serbs remain following a post-war exodus of non-Albanians. The Serbian minority lives in separate areas, in particular near Mitrovica, and enjoys the protection of peacekeepers from Nato - the organisation that bombed Milosevic out of Kosovo. The UN and Nato are trying to reduce their presence and hand over more responsibility to the EU.

Economically underdeveloped, Kosovo remains a creation of the international community. Though declining sharply, assistance from foreign donors still accounted for some 23 per cent of gross domestic product in 2004, while spending by expatriates working for international organisations accounted for another 5.7 per cent of GDP.

According to the EU, Kosovo's judicial system is weak and unable to deliver a proper service. Corruption is widespread at all levels of life and "organised crime is entrenched in Kosovo and its prevalence gives rise to serious concern". The EU identified worries about "trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings, prostitution and large-scale organised crime activities involving the infringement of copyright laws".

Will the Ahtisaari plan be acceptable?

Certainly not in Belgrade. In elections on Sunday, the nationalist Radical party emerged with the biggest share of the vote, but even Boris Tadic, the more pro-western leader of the Democratic Party, is opposed to full autonomy for the Kosovars. No Serb politician wants to go down in history as the person who surrendered Kosovo.

On the ground in Kosovo the local Serbs fear that any increase in power for the Albanian majority could have implications for their security. To reassure them, Mr Ahtisaari will pledge a continuing international presence there. But the overwhelming majority of the ethnic Albanian population wants full independence and is becoming increasingly impatient. Extremists have attacked UN vehicles in protest at the lack of autonomy and may be disappointed with the Ahtisaari compromise.

Will the plan work?

Success or failure depends on whether Russia blocks the blueprint in the UN Security Council. As Serbia's closest ally among the big powers, Russia considers itself to be Belgrade's biggest defender. Moreover, it complains that giving Kosovo any sort of independence sets a dangerous precedent. It is thinking here of its own backyard, particularly Chechnya.

Could Kosovo be successful as an independent state?

The current situation is not sustainable. With unemployment at nearly 50 per cent and high levels of poverty, the province remains an economic basket case, heavily dependent on outside aid. Diplomats say the only hope of turning around this dire situation is to secure an agreement resolving Kosovo's status. This would give legal certainty to potential investors. The danger is that the situation could spiral out of control if there is a return to widespread ethnic violence. Already, the Nato protection force has stepped up patrols and checkpoints to try to head-off any upsurge in sectarian unrest.

Should Kosovo be granted full independence from Serbia?

Yes...

* The overwhelming majority of the population is ethnic Albanian, and they have a right to self-determination

* Lack of nationhood is holding Kosovo back from developing economically and socially

* The current Nato-protected, UN-administered status quo is not sustainable in the long term

No...

* Kosovo is the historic birthplace of the Serb nation and losing it would stir up Serb nationalism

* Independence would endanger the physical security of the Serb minority in Kosovo

* It would set an unfortunate precedent which would encourage a host of other regions to press for independence

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