VIENNA (AP) — A 25-nation group supervising Kosovo's democratic progress announced Monday that it will end oversight of Europe's youngest independent nation in September, a move that will bring the ethnically divided country closer to its aspirations of European Union and NATO membership.
The decision, announced Monday in Vienna by Pieter Feith of Kosovo's International Civilian Office, reflected confidence that Kosovo's leadership could reduce tensions between majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs. However, international military and police units will still patrol Kosovo to lower the risk of ethnic violence.
Such violence still occurs, even 13 years after a NATO bombing campaign ended war between the two sides and the former Serbian province was put under international control. Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci —a former ethnic Albanian guerrilla commander — pledged to work hard for reconciliation.
"I will communicate and cooperate with every single Serb leader elected in the North who respects the institutions of Kosovo," he told reporters in Vienna, referring to the country's restive northern Serb enclave, which has been at the forefront of defying his government's authority.
Feith said "much remains to be done" in Kosovo's transformation into a Western-style democracy that meets EU criteria. But he also noted progress, including in the northern Serb region whose people had long seen neighboring Serbia as their lifeline but now in "increasing numbers are asking for services from the Kosovo government. "
The mandate of the International Civilian Office, which operates under the 25-nation International Steering Group, was to run out this year. Monday's announcement affirmed expectations that Kosovo will enact remaining legislation guaranteeing and strengthening democratic institutions and human rights by September.
While 91 countries have recognized Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration, Serbia — backed by Russia, China and others — has not, although recent meetings between the two sides have narrowed some differences.
Russia sees itself as a protector of Kosovo's Serbs, implicitly backing their refusal to accept the authority of the country's majority ethnic Albanian institutions and their wish for fusion of their region with neighboring Serbia.
Serbia continues to maintain a police presence and other "parallel institutions" in Kosovo's north and allows Kosovo Serbs to cast ballots in Serbian elections.
In the most recent violence linked to ethnic tensions, an explosive device hidden at an apartment in the northern town of Mitrovica killed an ethnic Albanian man and wounded two of his children in April. Three unidentified assailants then beat up a 66-year-old Serb man in what officials said was apparent retaliation.
A Steering Group communique issued Monday praised Thaci's "intention to deepen his government's engagement with the Serb community in the North ... and to continue engaging actively in dialogue with Belgrade."
Thaci acknowledged "uneasy challenges ... ahead of us." At the same time, he declared commitment to "all the necessary reforms ... for integration into NATO and the European Union."