Kosovo moved a step closer to full control of its own affairs Tuesday, with a multinational organization announcing it will end its mandate this year pending continued progress on democratization and human rights.
The mandate of the International Civilian Office, which operates under the 25-nation International Steering Group, was to run out this year. But an ISG announcement was the first official confirmation the ICO plans to end the work in 2012, amid expectations that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority government will enact remaining legislation meant to fully guarantee and strengthen democratic institutions and human rights.
"We have helped establish the institutions," ICO head Pieter Feith told reporters. "From the end of this year onwards, Kosovo will be like any other European state and will be helped and moved forward as part of the broader European project."
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 after almost 10 years under a U.N. umbrella, and following a devastating conflict pitting its independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority against Serbs who fought to maintain its status as a Serbian province.
While most of Europe, the U.S. and other western nations recognized its sovereignty, Russia, China and others did not.
Russia sees itself as a protector of Kosovo's minority 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 itself refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence, continuing to maintain a police presence and other "parallel institutions" in the province's mostly Serb north and allowing Kosovo Serbs to cast ballots in Serbian elections.
With occasional ethnic violence continuing to flare, much of the international focus in Kosovo has been trying to ease Serb-Albanian tensions. The ICO has been operating under the Steering Group, whose mandate is to establish "a multiethnic society, which shall govern itself democratically, and with full respect for the rule of law."
An ISG statement _ issued after a Vienna meeting Tuesday _ said the organization will "start preparations for an organized end to supervised independence and the closure of the International Civilian Office (ICO), which should be possible by the end of 2012" if the country carries out its commitments to expand and strengthen western democratic norms.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci welcomed the move, telling reporters in Vienna that "the ending of supervised independence means that Kosovo has been completely successful in the last four years and now we will enter a new phase of European perspective."
At the same time, the Steering Group urged both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians to work together, in a nod to remaining tensions not only between the two communities but also Serbia and Kosovo, which are trying to work out differences in occasional negotiations.
The Steering Group urged Serbia to "refrain from interfering in Kosovo, including by withdrawing its police, security, and other state presence ... (and) to ensure that its local elections are not extended into northern Kosovo."
It called on Kosovo's government to "reach out actively to its Serb citizens, particularly those in its northern municipalities," by agreeing to give them a greater role in running their own affairs.
Kosovo's government "needs to demonstrate that it understands and respects their rights, their concerns (especially for security), their language and their identity."
Feith urged Serbs both in Kosovo and Serbia to accept the territorial integrity of Kosovo, saying "we do not want to reinforce the expectation or the hope among certain policy makers in the region that partition is still an option."
Associated Press video reporter Philipp Jenne contributed.