For all the ways that Kosovo's declaration of independence on Feb. 17, 2008, was a seminal moment, it changed little. To be sure, it marked the beginning of a fundamentally new phase in Kosovo's political life and led to material as well as symbolic changes in its international status. Many powerful states recognized Kosovo as independent, and its altered international standing quickly allowed it to reach new heights of political autonomy. Yet many of the underlying political challenges and divisions that made Kosovo such a political flashpoint in Europe in the first place remained in place.
Its early post-independence years have been marked by a familiar mix of contentious politics involving international disagreement and intercommunal stalemate. The Serb and Albanian communities within Kosovo retain the irreconcilable views and mutual distrust that have characterized community relations in Kosovo for years, and deep divisions within the international community over the issue of recognition have hampered outside efforts to resolve the dispute. With international actors at times pulling in opposite directions, the international community has been unable and unwilling to offer the kind of sustained and consistent pressure that might otherwise have altered the politics on the ground. The declaration of independence was a landmark moment, but neither the pronouncement itself nor the international endorsements that followed have resolved the fundamental political challenges remaining in this nascent state.
Although the political divide within Kosovo has long historical roots, its current trajectory was critically shaped by events in the 1990s. Once an autonomous province of Serbia, Kosovo became notorious after Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic sought to burnish his nationalist credentials by talking up and taking on the cause of the Serbian minority in the Albanian-majority territory. His increasingly repressive and violent policies against the Kosovo Albanian community were met with armed resistance in the late-1990s from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and international efforts to resolve the conflict culminated in the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. The subsequent settlement involved Serbia's withdrawal from the territory and the deployment of two major international operations: a powerful United Nations civilian administration (UNMIK) and a strong NATO peacekeeping deployment (KFOR).