(Los Angeles Times) - The United States and major European powers formally recognized Kosovo on Monday, but fears of fueling secessionist movements undercut their efforts to project a broader front of support for what they regard as Europe's newest state.
The 27 members of the European Union were unable to agree in a lengthy meeting on a joint approach to the tiny Balkan state, which declared independence from Serbia on Sunday. Instead, foreign ministers declared it was up to each member nation to decide for itself.
France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy were among 17 EU members that signaled they would grant recognition.
But Spain and Greece, along with Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, and Bulgaria, said they would not, citing the danger of encouraging other breakaway regions.
"This does not recognize international law," said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country is worried about secessionist movements of its own.
The U.S. for years had considered independence the only realistic path because of the mistreatment of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority by the Serbian government. It recognized Kosovo in a statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a letter from President Bush to Kosovo's president, in which he urged Kosovo to protect its Serb minority.
"In particular, I support your embrace of multi-ethnicity as a principle of good governance and your commitment to developing accountable institutions in which all citizens are equal under the law," Bush wrote to President Fatmir Sejdiu.
As Europe chose sides, so did other nations, their decisions based largely on how they viewed their own minorities.
Russia, China, and the Caucasus countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan were among those that sided with Serbia against immediate recognition.
Afghanistan, Turkey, Australia, Albania and Taiwan signaled that they would support it.
Holding back wider international support were fears it would inflame separatist movements large and small in many areas: the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia, among Basques in Spain, in the Transnistria region in Moldova, the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, the Tamil Tiger movement in Sri Lanka, Turkish areas of Cyprus and many others.
Kosovo's government received sufficient support to function in the world community, said U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. But the objections were a public-relations setback and will complicate the impoverished state's efforts to win aid and develop trade.
Serbia, which had threatened to downgrade diplomatic relations with the United States if it recognized the new state, charged that the United States had violated international law and recalled its ambassador to Washington. Serbia regards Kosovo as part of its historic homeland.
Besides encouraging secessionist movements elsewhere, critics warned that creation of an independent Kosovo could spark renewed violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, and sharpen conflicts between the United States and Russia, a key ally of Serbia.
U.S. officials, who have been a champion of Kosovo since leading NATO in an air war against Belgrade in 1999 to halt Serbian attacks, sought to downplay such concerns. They maintained that an attempt to prevent independence would have failed, resulting in a more violent secession.
Bush, in his letter Monday to the president of Kosovo, cited "the deep and sincere bonds of friendship that united our people."
Rice, who was traveling in Africa with Bush, warned in a statement that Kosovo's move should not be used as a precedent by leaders of breakaway regions in the former Soviet Union. The combination of civilian suffering in Kosovo and a long period of U.N. supervision makes Kosovo "a special case," she said.
The U.S. statement of support came after missteps by the White House. U.S. officials had planned to issue their statement of recognition after what they hoped would be a consensus EU statement. However, Bush seemed to jump ahead of the plan in an NBC interview early Monday while in Tanzania.
"The Kosovars are now independent," he said in remarks widely taken to mean that the U.S. had recognized Kosovo.
White House officials insisted he was not formally announcing that step. But a few hours later, they confirmed it after Rice had issued her statement.
In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica denounced the U.S. decision.
"This decision by the United States will not turn the false state into a real one," Kostunica said.
The Serbian parliament voted without a dissenting vote to seek the annulment of "the illegitimate actions" of the Kosovars. Serbian police filed criminal charges against Kosovo's president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker for proclaiming "a phony state on Serbian territory."
The presidents of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia said at a joint news conference in Moscow that Kosovo's action creates a precedent to "more actively continue to work" for their own independence.
"Everybody is looking at what has been happening in Kosovo yesterday and today as something sensational," said Sergei Bagapsh, president of Abkhazia, adding it was a "serious delusion" to think they would not be encouraged to push ahead. "We have set off on our journey earlier and we will go all the way to the end."
Both presidents lamented what they called a double standard applied by the United States and European Union to Kosovo.
In Moscow, Russian parliamentary leaders said Kosovo's independence could lead to new ties between Russia and secessionist states in the former Soviet satellites.
Yet private analysts in Russia said Moscow is unlikely to retaliate against the West by recognizing the breakaway states but rather intends to keep fighting to prevent Kosovo from gaining full international recognition.
Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, said that Russia will be able to prevent Kosovo from getting full recognition.
"Russia will not permit Kosovo to become a U.N. member," he said. "Russia and its many allies will do their best to prevent Kosovo from becoming a member of various important international bodies and organizations, from UNESCO to the International Olympic Committee."
^Richter reported from Washington and Baum from Paris. Staff writers Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow, Maggie Farley at the United Nations, and special correspondents Christian Retzlaff in Berlin and Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.