PRISTINA, Kosovo - Nearly two years after the newest country in the world declared independence, outside powers are still firmly in control.
About 14,000 NATO troops are on hand to keep the peace, a decade after their arrival to protect Kosovars from annihilation by next-door Serbia. With just two million people in Kosovo, that's more than twice as many foreign soldiers, per capita, as are currently deployed in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.
The economy is a basket case, with a 45 percent unemployment rate. Most people are dependent on foreign largess. Kosovo even lacks an international dialing code. Landlines are all cursed with Serbian numbers, even though Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence. Cell-phone numbers are borrowed from Monaco or a Balkan neighbor, Slovenia.
And yet, despite its problems and growing pains, Kosovo is cited by many diplomats as a credible model of nation-building, a sign - relevant to the current debate over Afghanistan - that a determined effort by foreigners can help to build a country from the ashes.
After years of ethnic conflict, security and stability are taking root. Predictions that independence would lead to revenge killings by the ethnic Albanian majority against ethnic Serbs, who make up 7 percent of the population, proved overblown. Early next year, NATO is expected to draw down its forces by one-third.
Yves de Kermabon, head of the European Union's civilian law-and-order mission in Kosovo, said improvements had come slowly but steadily. "When you are in the field, it feels like nothing is moving forward," said Kermabon, a retired French general. "But when you come back after two or three years, you are amazed at the progress."
Few people in Kosovo are predicting an easy road ahead. Foreign diplomats, government officials, and ordinary Kosovars agree that it will take years, if not decades, for Kosovo to stand on its own.
Even now, a Dutchman holds nearly absolute power to block decisions made by the fledgling government. A separate 3,000-member security force sent by the European Union holds sway over police and the courts. In the meantime, many Kosovars believe the U.S. Embassy dictates their country's affairs from behind closed doors.
But construction cranes rise like green shoots from the skyline of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, which is in the midst of a building boom thanks to foreign aid.
In another hopeful sign, Kosovo in mid-November held its first municipal elections since declaring independence on Feb. 17, 2008. Although there were a handful of violent incidents during the campaign, voters cast their ballots in peace and there were no major allegations of fraud.
Voter turnout was an estimated 45 percent, an increase from the last elections, in 2007, which were administered by the United Nations. Election observers said they were heartened by a small but apparently significant turnout of ethnic Serbs who ignored a call for a boycott by the Serbian government in Belgrade.
Officials in Pristina said the fact that the elections drew so little international attention was a further indication of progress. "Kosovo benefits in a way from being more or less forgotten," said a senior Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Nation-building takes time. This is a slow, painful process."
Still, after a burst of enthusiasm when independence was declared last year, grumbling over the lousy economy and dysfunctional government is getting louder.
"We don't have doubts about our independence," said Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister and head of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, an opposition party. "But people are concerned about where we are today and how we are running ourselves."
Only 63 countries - or about one-third of the U.N - formally recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Although Kosovo is betting its future on eventual membership in the EU, five members of the trading bloc - Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania, and Cyprus - have refused to establish diplomatic ties, fearful of giving a boost to secession-minded minorities at home.
Kosovo has a prime minister and a parliament, but their actions can be overruled by Pieter Feith, a Dutch diplomat who serves as the international civilian representative to oversee Kosovo's development.
Feith describes Kosovo as a sovereign country operating under "supervised independence." He said his job would likely remain necessary for two or three more years. He said Kosovo's elected politicians had much to learn. "The leadership are not experienced and do not have much long-term vision," he said."
Kosovars acknowledged their shortcomings and said they had to become more self-reliant. But more and more, they point fingers back at their international overlords, accusing them of refusing to relinquish power.
"With a ruling international bureaucracy, there is no democracy," said Albin Kurti, founder of a grassroots movement called Self-Determination "If Europe really wanted to develop us, they would bring economic development, not soldiers."