Kosovo's Albanians want "independence" from Serbia. The United States and other Western countries are willing to support only "autonomy." The Serbs aren't happy with even "autonomy," but they've grudgingly agreed to it. What's the difference between the two concepts?
The legal distinction is quite clear; the practical distinction is less so.
The legal distinction: An independent Kosovo would be a sovereign state with the right to join the U.N and fly its own flag etc. More important, independent states have a well-defined set of rights under international law, such as the right not to be invaded. An autonomous Kosovo, on the other hand, would technically remain a province of Serbia--meaning that international law wouldn't prohibit a Serb invasion.
Under the system proposed by Madeleine Albright and her European counterparts, Serbian law would grant the Kosovars self-rule. And the Serbian army would withdraw from the region, except for a small force left to guard Kosovo's borders. Albright's plan is a restoration of sorts. Kosovo had many of these powers until 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic revoked its autonomy. This time, NATO troops would keep the Serbs to their promise.
This arrangement is not all that strange. Sovereign nations often have sub-units with considerable autonomy. For instance, the 50 American states. Autonomy is often used as a compromise measure to contain separatist tendencies as with the Palestinians in Israel and the provinces of Kashmir in India and Quebec in Canada. And sometimes a supra-national power like the European Community assumes powers--such as central banking and trade regulations--once held by several nations.
The practical distinction: So why would the Kosovars risk losing a NATO guarantee of self-rule by rejecting "autonomy" and holding out for "independence"? The first reason is symbolic. Independence is a formal recognition that the Kosovars--90 percent of whom are ethnically Albanian--are not Serbian. Second, some Kosovars would like to merge with neighboring Albania, and independence is a prerequisite. (It's unclear, however, whether Albania wants to merge.) Third, the autonomy plan is provisional--in three years NATO will revisit the question. The Kosovars fear that NATO will withdraw its troops and the Serbs will send in the tanks. Serbia would be prohibited from invading an independent Kosovo by international law. Of course, no one in the Balkans believes that the niceties of international law are going to change Uncle Slobodan's mind about anything. But statehood might help Kosovo gain international support in the event it is eventually invaded.
So why does the distinction matter so much to NATO? Answer: the Western powers don't want to encourage other ethnic groups in the Balkans to demand independence too.
Explainer thanks Professor Henry Steiner of Harvard Law School.