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Amid the kerfuffle around Kosovo's declaration of independence, few have paused to note what an extraordinary document it is. It is so hedged with conditions, obligations and reservations, so replete with commitments to consult, honor and obey the province's international patrons, that it is also a declaration of dependence.
Its last paragraph begins: "We hereby affirm, clearly, specifically and irrevocably, that Kosovo shall be legally bound to comply with the provisions contained in this declaration, including, especially, the obligations for it under the Ahtisaari Plan" (my italics; that's U.N. Special Envoy Martii Ahtisaari). You can almost hear the Western advisor dictating over the Kosovar draftsman's shoulder.
The reality on the ground will, of course, be rather different from the words on paper. The Kosovar Albanians have taken an important stride toward self-government. On Sunday night, they had something to celebrate on the streets of Pristina.
I would not like to be a Kosovar Serb living in one of the enclaves south of the Ibar River in the years ahead. The position of the Serbs north of the Mitrovica bridge over the Ibar is a different story. Despite NATO's temporary closing of the border between them and Serbia, their daily social, economic and cultural integration with Serbia will continue.
De facto, Kosovo is partitioned. When it and Serbia are both eventually members of the European Union, Kosovo may gradually aspire to a situation comparable to that of Belgium: a country formally united, in practice largely divided, but with peace and freedom for its citizens secured in a larger framework. (Indeed, if things go well in Europe's southeast and badly in its northwest, Belgium and Kosovo may yet converge: the Balkanization of Belgium meets the Belgianization of the Balkans.)
The European context does make this story different than that of most would-be breakaway territories in the world. In effect, the EU is moving seamlessly from empire mode to enlargement mode,and Kosovo is moving from protectorate to EU member state without ever achieving full, sovereign independence in between. And, at least on paper, the Kosovar Albanians have accepted the price. If they are tempted to renege, there will be thousands of European officials -- and, as a backup, NATO troops -- present to steer them back to the path of virtue. Kosovo's internationally coordinated declaration of dependent independence is the least-worst outcome for the region. Those who protest that it brings new instability ignore the fact that the limbo in which Kosovo has lived, since the war of 1999 ended with U.N. Resolution 1244, was itself unstable and unsustainable. No one in his right mind would invest serious money in this limbo. A fragile peace was punctuated by riots. Unemployment is over 40%.
In the end, Kosovo's independence is the least-worst outcome for Serbia too. It's horrible to lose a gangrenous arm, but that is sometimes the precondition for recovery. In their hearts, many Serbs know this. And it was in Belgrade, not Pristina, that I heard this joke: The Serbs will do anything for Kosovo except live there.
For now, there will be a paroxysm of anger and mourning. But then Serbia has a choice: sulk for decades in impotent resentment, or take the European road to national reconstruction. It will be many years before Kosovo takes its seat at the United Nations. Russia, as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, can and will block it. But many Kosovars have spent time in Switzerland and may recall that the ancient and fiercely independent Alpine republic only became a member of the United Nations in 2002. For now, what matters is the reality on the ground and the extent of recognition by other states. As I write, more than 20 states have recognized or declared an intention to recognize the infant republic, including, the United States, Britain and Germany.
Is this a precedent, as some fear and others hope? Of course. Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia and Trans-Dniester are muttering about following the example of the American-backed Kosovars. Basque and Catalan separatists are taking note, and the Spanish government has reacted against the declaration of independence with startling sharpness. Kosovo is the top story on the website of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, which has 69 members, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.
"Kosovo is a special case," says its declaration of independence, going on to insist (hear the advisor's whisper again) that it is not a precedent. But the 68 other members of UNPO are special cases too. Kosovo's declaration of dependent independence is the least-worst way forward, but don't let us pretend that it's not a precedent. Both statements are true: Kosovo is unique, and there will be more Kosovos.
Timothy Garton Ash is a contributing editor to Opinion, professor of European studies at Oxford University and the author, most recently, of "Free World."