It is now nine years since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in the final step of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. In 2012, the number of UN member states that recognized Kosovo’s independence became a majority. Currently, Kosovo has been recognized by 57.5% of UN members (111 out of 193).
Kosovo had been part of Serbia (later Yugoslavia) since the First Balkan War in 1913. The region of Kosovo was of particular importance to Serbia as it was the historical homeland of Serbs. It included many important places in Serbian national memory, including Pec, the seat of the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Field of the Blackbirds, where the Ottomans effectively snuffed out Serbian independence in 1389.
But by the time that Serbia had finally reconquered the territory, it was mostly populated by Albanians. Although the Serbian government tried to change the ethnic composition of Kosovo by settling ethnic Serbs in the region and trying to deny the right of Kosovar Albanians to study in their own language, Kosovo remained largely Albanian. Ethnic tensions between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians continued throughout Yugoslavia’s communist regime. Today Kosovo is roughly 93% Albanian.
Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s, and in 1998 war broke out between the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and what was left of Yugoslavia (at that time only Serbia and Montenegro). The ethnic conflict caused thousands of deaths before NATO intervened, providing support for the KLA. In the Kumanovo Treaty (1999), a ceasefire was declared and UN Security Council Resolution 1244 created the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), an international civil and military presence in Kosovo to help keep the peace.
Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 was greeted with outrage by Serbia, which rejected the declaration. The Security Council was split, but a decision by the International Court of Justice determined that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal. Thirty-six countries recognized Kosovar independence within the first two months, and the number has steadily risen since then.
Although Serbia still refuses to accept Kosovar independence, the Serbian government has seemed to come to terms with the fact that they are unlikely to regain Kosovo. The 2013 Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo normalized some aspects of Serbian-Kosovar relations and created a special status for Serbs residing in Kosovo.
But Serbia has remained opposed to international recognition of Kosovo, which largely explains the reluctance of many countries to recognize Kosovo. Of those that do not recognize Kosovar independence, the most common reasons for this refusal are friendship or support for Serbia (ex. Algeria and Belarus), setting a precedent for unilateral declarations of autonomy (ex. Spain and China), and violating international law (ex. Brazil and Ecuador). Although the latter is used as the excuse most frequently, the actual reason is usually the second. Many countries are faced with potentially secessionist regions, and if they recognized Kosovo it would set a bad precedent for their own issues. This is true for both Armenia and Azerbaijan in regards to Nagorno-Karabagh, Greece and Cyprus in regards to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and Iraq in regards to Kurdistan, to name just a few.
The most important denier of Kosovar independence is Russia, who has strong connections to Serbia. Despite its strong opposition of Kosovar independence, however, Russia used the ICJ decision in favor of Kosovar independence to support the secession of the Crimea from the Ukraine. Among the G20 countries, seven (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Russia) do not recognize Kosovo. China and Russia’s opposition has also prevented the UN Security Council from making a decision on Kosovar independence.
But while problems still exist, Kosovo has won recognition from most of the world. Notably, Kosovo has the support of the other three members of the Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France), 25 of 29 European Union members, and local countries Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
Serbian opposition is what prevents Kosovo from gaining universal acceptance. If Serbia accepted Kosovar independence, countries would no longer oppose it due to wanting to support Serbia, worrying about a dangerous unilateral declaration of independence precedent, or having qualms about international law. Until that happens, however, Kosovo is likely to make slow, but not universal, progress at gaining more recognition. Kosovo is well past the 50% mark, however, and no matter what the coming years may bring, Kosovar independence is almost certainly ensured.