PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo amended its constitution on Friday to close a Western-led supervisory body, a first step towards ending foreign oversight of the last country carved from the remains of Yugoslavia.
The International Civilian Office (ICO) will close on Monday, but European Union police and NATO soldiers will stay on in the state divided between an ethnic Albanian majority and a small northern region dominated by Serbs.
Kosovo’s 120-seat parliament voted 98-10 to amend the constitution, removing references to the ICO. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla commander in Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, hailed it as a “very special and historic day”.
“This is the moment when the state of Kosovo is strengthened and consolidated, a starting point for EU integration, a turning point and new chapter for the building of a democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo,” he told Reuters Television.
But parliament also extended until June 2014 the mandate of an EU mission of 1,250 police, prosecutors and judges, known as EULEX, which has significant powers to tackle corruption, war crimes and inter-ethnic violence.
Analysts said foreign powers would still player a major role in the country - which has what is referred to as “supervised independence” - for the foreseeable future.
The ICO was created by mainly Western states that recognized Kosovo, with powers to fire government officials and reject legislation to make sure the Albanian majority protected the rights of the Serb minority. It never used those powers.
Underscoring the threat of violence, masked gunmen on Friday opened fire on vehicles of the EU and Kosovo police forces in the northern, mainly Serb region of Zubin Potok, police said.
A female Kosovo police officer was lightly wounded.
More than 90 countries, including the United States and 22 of the EU’s 27 members, have recognized Kosovo, split from Serbia in 2008, as a sovereign state. Serbia - backed by permanent U.N. Security Council member Russia - says it will never do so.
Tensions in the north have kept NATO from reducing its peace force to below 6,000.
“The supervision of independence is not ending, this is just the closure of the ICO,” said Ardian Arifaj, senior researcher at the Pristina-based KIPRED think-tank.
“EULEX is an international mission with the power to arrest government ministers if it wants,” he said. “It’s good we have EULEX, but you can’t say we’re not under supervision from now on.”
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, after an 11-week NATO air war to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces under Slobodan Milosevic.
Kosovo, which today has a population of 1.7 million, is steeped in history and myth for many Serbs, and Belgrade says it will never recognize the territory as independent.
But Serbia is under pressure from the EU to improve relations with its former southern province and loosen its grip on the Serb-populated north if it is to make progress on its bid to join the bloc.
Additional reporting by Branislav Krstic; Editing by Matt Robinson and Robin Pomeroy