PRISTINA, Kosovo — Days after declaring independence from Serbia, the world's newest state finds itself facing its first security challenge: how to secure its borders when Serbia has refused to recognize them.
After Serb militants destroyed two border posts Tuesday, NATO peacekeepers and United Nations police had to rescue members of the Kosovo Police Service, whose mixed ethnic Albanian and Serbian force had been caught off guard.
Amid fears that armed Serbian militants were crossing into Kosovo, NATO forces — including troops from the United States — seized control of the border crossings early Wednesday and closed the border for about 24 hours.
Meanwhile, in northern Kosovo, local militants escalated their discontent with noisy protests and nighttime grenade attacks.
Kosovo's deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuci, blamed Serbia's government in Belgrade for the troubles. He said that Belgrade is pressuring Serbs in Kosovo to resist the new state, but that Serbia eventually would realize that the cost of opposing Kosovo's independence was too high.
"The reason for the continued problems is the ongoing encouragement and direction from Belgrade," Kuci said. "We need to convince the Serb minority that being a part of an independent state is not a threat. We need to work to change their mentalities."
Independent Kosovo may be unable to protect its own borders for the time being, but it has support from NATO — now represented by 17,000 troops from 35 countries — which has been present in Kosovo since the 1999 U.S.-led intervention ended Serbian domination.
A huge challenge still lies ahead for Kosovo, however: It must build a functioning country and a viable economy in one of the poorest corners of Europe.
But Kosovars are bursting with optimism. In the newly declared capital of Pristina, at the Strip Depot, a hangout for Kosovo's young elite that's named for the comic strips that adorn its walls, plans are being hatched and deals are being brokered.
Everything had been on hold while Kosovo's final status was being resolved, said Petrit Selemi, one of the cafe's owners. Now that Kosovo has declared its independence, things are moving. Interest is likely to be revived in the construction of a huge coal-fired power plant that could export energy to the rest of the region. Plans for new roads to the Macedonian, Albanian and Serbia borders will be dusted off.
"I think Kosovo now is going to experience a huge bubble of investor confidence," said Selemi, who also consults for a German company that's hoping to invest in the new power plant, known as the Kosovo C project. "The challenge will be for the government not to let this bubble burst."
For the last nine years, Kosovo has been in limbo. Officially, it remained a province of Serbia, but under U.N. governance. In that period, the international community helped Kosovo build many of the institutions of an independent state: a parliament, a police service, a tax system. But the absence of formal statehood created a unique set of problems.
Instead of passports, citizens use U.N. travel documents, which aren't accepted everywhere. Large infrastructure projects, such as new roads, languished for lack of investment. Even telephoning Kosovo is confusing: Since it doesn't have its own international country code, landlines still use the Serbian prefix, but cell phones operate with numbers borrowed from Monaco and Slovenia.
Kosovo also faces a huge economic challenge. Its infrastructure and economy deteriorated or were destroyed in the conflict. Today, unemployment among the region's young and largely Muslim population hovers around 50 percent.
Some of these issues may be improved by Sunday's declaration, but full recognition of Kosovo's independence is likely to be a long process.
The United States recognized Kosovo on Monday, followed by France, Britain, and other Western powers. But Serbia, backed by Russia, continues to fight Kosovo's recognition, and many countries, especially ones that have their own secession movements, such as Spain and Indonesia, are wary of setting an international precedent.
As a result, Kosovo is likely to find its path into many international institutions, such as the United Nations, blocked.
Akan Ismaili, the 33-year-old CEO of Kosovo's Slovenian-financed cell phone carrier Ipko, acknowledged that Kosovo isn't likely to get its own country code any time soon. But, he said, the declaration of independence — and its recognition by most Western powers — will ease the minds of wary investors and generate optimism about the economy.
"I sincerely believe that economies work on optimism," he said. "The resolution of status creates that spark. People will start to look to the future."
(Itano is a McClatchy special correspondent.)