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The 1999 war over Kosovo left the former Serbian province in political limbo, postponing the question of possible independence for another day. That day is now at hand, and the main question facing the international community is not whether Kosovo will become independent, but when and how. Status talks are expected to conclude in the next few months, with the United Nations Security Council to rule on the issue by the end of the year.
The original plan was for Kosovo's political leaders to demonstrate their ability to govern responsibly before formal discussions of sovereignty could begin. They haven't really done so, although they have made some grudging moves under international pressure.
Yet as a practical matter, Kosovo's international wardship cannot be extended indefinitely. The most promising way to encourage further progress is by moving ahead to a carefully conditioned form of limited autonomy.
The most critical issue, now as ever, is guaranteeing the rights of the ethnic Serb minority. Any independence arrangement will have to assure minorities a substantial role in government, particularly in sensitive areas like the Justice Ministry.
For the first few years at least, the powers of Kosovo's new government must be strictly limited. An international authority will have to monitor the government's fulfillment of internationally agreed conditions, paying special attention to issues like the rule of law and minority rights. A few thousand NATO-led troops should remain in Kosovo with the power to intervene when necessary to compel compliance.
Most of the countries with troops in Kosovo would prefer to bring them home now. But Kosovo's march toward independence is going to remain difficult and dangerous for years. The need for a continuing armed international presence should be non-negotiable.