Kosovo, an impoverished territory with a population of mainly ethnic Albanians, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.
The territory immediately won recognition from the United States and major European Union countries. But Serbia, with the help of its big-power ally Russia, has vowed to block Kosovo from getting a United Nations seat.
Kosovo has been the backdrop to a centuries-old and often-strained relationship between its Serb and ethnic Albanian inhabitants.
From 1999 to 2008 the province was administered by the UN, after enduring a conflict fuelled by ethnic division and repression. Reconciliation between the majority ethnic Albanians, most of whom support independence, and the Serb minority remains elusive.
The landlocked region is one of Europe's poorest, with more than half of its people living in poverty. Although it possesses rich mineral resources, agriculture is the main economic activity.
Kosovo's economy revolves around agriculture
Ethnic Albanians number about 2 million - about 90% of the population. Some 100,000 Serbs remain following a post-war exodus of non-Albanians. The Serbian minority live in separate areas watched over by Nato peacekeepers. International diplomats have voiced concern over slow progress on their rights.
Slavic and Albanian peoples have co-existed in Kosovo since the eighth century. The region was the centre of the Serbian empire until the mid-14th century, and Serbians regard Kosovo as the birthplace of their state.
Over the centuries, as the ethnic balance shifted in favour of Albanians, Kosovo came to represent a Serbian golden age, embodied in epic poetry.
Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 ushered in centuries of rule under the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Serbia regained control of Kosovo in 1913, and the province was incorporated into the Yugoslav federation.
Path to autonomy
Serbs and ethnic Albanians vied for control in the region throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s the suppression of Albanian national identity in Kosovo gave way to a more tolerant line from Belgrade. Ethnic Albanians gained a foothold in the Kosovan, and Yugoslav, administrations.
Divided town: Mitrovica has been a flashpoint for inter-ethnic tensions
The 1974 Yugoslav constitution laid down Kosovo's status as an autonomous province, and pressure for independence mounted in the 1980s after the death of Yugoslav President Tito.
But resentment over Kosovan influence within the Yugoslav federation was harnessed by the future leader, Slobodan Milosevic. On becoming president in 1989 he proceeded to strip Kosovo of its autonomy.
A passive resistance movement in the 1990s failed to secure independence or to restore autonomy, although ethnic Albanian leaders declared unilateral independence in 1991.
In the mid-1990s an ethnic Albanian guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, stepped up its attacks on Serb targets. The attacks precipitated a major, and brutal, Yugoslav military crackdown.
Slobodan Milosevic's rejection of an internationally-brokered deal to end the crisis, and the persecution of Kosovo Albanians, led to the start of Nato air strikes against targets in Kosovo and Serbia in March 1999.
Meanwhile, a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo Albanians was initiated by Serbian forces. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Thousands of people died in the conflict.
Serbian forces were driven out in the summer of 1999 and the UN took over the administration of the province.
- Status: Declared itself independent 17 February 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize declaration. UN-administered in the meantime.
- Population: 1.8 million-2.4 million (estimate)
- Capital: Pristina
- Major languages: Albanian, Serbian
- Major religions: Islam, Christianity
- Natural resources: Coal, lead, zinc, chromium, silver
President: Fatmir Sejdiu
Fatmir Sejdiu was elected by parliament in February 2006. The leader of Kosovo's biggest party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), he was the sole candidate.
Fatmir Sejdiu supports independence from Serbia
He was a close ally of the former president, writer-turned-politician Ibrahim Rugova, who died of cancer just days before UN-mediated talks on Kosovo's future status began in February 2006.
Ibrahim Rugova was nicknamed the "Gandhi of the Balkans". He led an ethnic Albanian campaign of passive resistance against Serb rule in the 1990s. He was twice elected president in unofficial elections, and won official presidential elections in 2002.
Like his predecessor, President Sejdiu supports independence for Kosovo.
He was born near the town of Podujevo in northern Kosovo. He studied law in France and the US and speaks both English and French.
Prime minister: Hashim Thaci
Hashim Thaci is a veteran of the ethnic Albanians' drive to break away from Serbia.
The former guerrilla is now regarded as a moderate politician
He began agitating for the Kosovo Albanian cause while still in his teens, and first came to prominence as the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the guerrilla group that took up arms against Serb forces in the late 1990s.
He became known outside Kosovo when he formed part of the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team at internationally-sponsored peace talks at Rambouillet, France, early in 1999.
He made such a powerful impression at the talks that he succeeded in sidelining veteran Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova - who was more in favour of passive resistance to Serbia - and was appointed leader of the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team.
After the talks broke down and NATO launched its air campaign against Serbia that resulted in Kosovo becoming a UN protectorate, Mr Rugova reasserted his authority within the province and officially became president in 2002.
Meanwhile, Mr Thaci underwent a gradual process of transformation from fiery left-wing guerrilla to respectable politician. His Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) emerged out of the KLA and finally won an election in November 2007.
Some analysts believe that the years spent by Mr Thaci as prime minister-in-waiting allowed him to hone his political skills and made him into one of the province's most moderate leaders.
On being elected prime minister, he made an attempt to reach out to Kosovo's dwindling Serbian minority by switching to speaking Serbian as he called on the Serbs to consider Kosovo their home.
Mr Thaci's party consolidated its position in local elections in November 2009, in a vote that was seen as a crucial test of the democratic credentials of the Kosovo government.
Hasim Thaci was born in 1968 in the Drenica region, a stronghold of the ethnic Albanian revolt against Serbia.
He was a student activist in 1989-91, and later went underground to join the KLA, which was formed in 1993. It was at that time that he acquired the nom de guerre of "the Snake" on account of his success in evading capture.
He is married, with one son.
The media in Kosovo reflect the mainly-Albanian ethnic composition, with most outlets using the Albanian language.
Television is the main source of news. Public broadcaster RTK was set up as an editorially-independent service. There are 80-90 licensed radio stations.
The newspaper market is limited; the biggest and most trusted newspaper is the Koha Ditore daily. Some dailies publish editions for Kosovo Albanians living in Western Europe.
A UN-backed commission established a code of conduct for journalists, with the aim of preventing incitement to hatred in the media. International organisations run media support programmes.
There were 377,000 internet users by December 2008, comprising 21% of the population (Internetworldstats.com).
- Koha Ditore (The Daily Times) - daily
- Bota Sot (The World Today) - daily
- Kosova Sot (Kosovo Today) - daily
- Zeri (The Voice) - daily
- Lajm (News) - daily
- Gazeta Express - daily
- Epoka e Re (The New Epoch) - daily