Ping pong team to compete under Kosovo flag, but troubles linger for new state

Kosovo's new flag flies proudly at home, but not at the United Nations like many in the world's youngest country had hoped. And it's being hoisted in China _ but at the table tennis world championships, not the Beijing Olympics.
For the team of six, the first athletes to represent Kosovo internationally since it became independent on Feb. 17, the journey has been hailed as a huge success. But statehood won't solve the troubles Kosovo faces on the international level.
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci presented Kosovo's new flag to the team and said he was rooting for it to return with medals from the tournament that started Sunday and runs through March 2.
"From now on, Kosovo sportsmen in all the international games will take part as representatives of the Republic of Kosovo," Thaci said.
"I'm very proud to take part in this championship," said Yll Prestreshi, 15, a team star. "This is a big honor for me and I can't believe it."
But Kosovo's future on the world stage is likely to be far more lackluster and its path strewn with red tape. Without a seat at the U.N. _ the most coveted badge of statehood _ it will find it tough to join international institutions ranging from the International Olympic Committee to the International Monetary Fund.
Serbia, backed by Russia, has threatened to thwart Kosovo's attempts to gain diplomatic recognition. And at bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, which operate by consensus, it takes just a single member state to shut out Kosovo.
Kosovo's international status is a gray area pocked with uncertainties that need to be addressed, said a Western diplomat in Pristina, the capital.
At least nine multilateral treaties that have been signed by the U.N. administration on behalf of Kosovo are likely to be invalidated. Serbia is expected to press for their rejection after a 120-day transition period expires in mid-June, when authority is to be handed over to Kosovo officials.
Those agreements include a regional accord that provides the basis for a free trade economic community in the Balkans known as CEFTA. Countries in the region are likely to side with Serbia, since they do not want to risk potentially lucrative partnerships with Belgrade.
"It is unclear who will inherit these treaties and agreements," said the Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "Serbia will surely reject Kosovo's membership."
Nehat Citaku, who coaches the national table tennis team, is stuck in the middle.
Over the years, Kosovo's squad competed in tournaments worldwide, only to be denied its place in the European championships because Serbia ran interference.
"We have taken part in games on all five continents," Citaku said. "The only troubles we had were only with games in Serbia. And that's only natural."
Other sportsmen also fear their dreams of international glory may fall through because of the legal wrangling over Kosovo's future.
Five ethnic Albanian boxers from Kosovo hoping to represent their homeland in Beijing say chances are slim they'll be able to take part under the Kosovo flag.
At best, they can compete individually under the Olympic flag, but minus any national symbols. Such arrangements were made previously for athletes from East Timor and the former Yugoslavia.
The IOC says Kosovo's chances of fielding a separate team at the Beijing Olympics are "unlikely."
According to IOC rules, Kosovo needs to be recognized by the U.N. as an independent state and meet various sports requirements before it can gain Olympic status. The Beijing Olympics run Aug. 8-24.
Citaku expressed surprise that the Chinese authorities issued visas for his team, since China has not recognized Kosovo's independence.
But those visas are pegged to passports issued by the U.N. in Kosovo that will remain valid until Kosovo's authorities eventually issue their own new travel documents _ and fewer countries are likely to recognize the new passports.
"Kosovars will have more difficulties traveling on the new Kosovo passport than on the U.N.-issued ones," the Western diplomat said.