Kosovo, an impoverished land with a mainly Albanian population, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, after years of strained relations between its Serb and Albanian inhabitants.
It has been recognised by the United States and major European Union countries, but Serbia, backed by its powerful ally Russia, refuses to do so, as do most ethnic Serbs inside Kosovo.
After the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia responded to separatist pressure from Kosovo by launching a brutal crackdown on the territory's Albanian population, which was only brought to an end by Nato military intervention in 1999.
Until 2008 the province was administered by the UN. Reconciliation between the majority Albanians, most of whom support independence, and the Serb minority remains elusive.
A landmark deal aimed at paving the way for the normalisation of relations was brokered by the EU in 2013. Under the agreement, ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo would have their own police and appeal court, but would vote for the same local government bodies as Albanians, ending separate, parallel Serb institutions funded by Belgrade.
In the deal, Serbia and Kosovo also promised not to block each other's efforts to achieve EU membership.
More than half of landlocked Kosovo's people live in poverty. Although it possesses rich mineral resources, agriculture is the main economic activity because of decades of under-development.
At a glance
- Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It has been recognised by the US and many EU countries
- Kosovo and Serbia reached a landmark agreement to normalise their relations in April 2013
- The EU subsequently gave the green light for talks on an association agreement with Kosovo to begin
- Nato peacekeepers have been in Kosovo since 1999
Profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring
Kosovar 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.History
Slavonic and Albanian peoples have lived side by side in Kosovo since the eighth century. The region was the centre of the Serbian kingdom until the mid-14th century, and Serbs regard Kosovo as the birthplace of their nation.
Over the centuries, as the ethnic balance shifted in favour of Albanians, Kosovo came to represent a golden age in the Serbian national imagination, embodied in epic poetry.
Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 ushered in centuries of rule by the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Serbia regained control of Kosovo in 1913, and the province was later incorporated into Yugoslavia.Path to autonomy
Serbs and 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. Albanians gained a foothold in the Kosovan and Yugoslav administrations.
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 Yugoslav Serbian 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 Kosovar Albanian leaders declared unilateral independence in 1991.
In the mid-1990s an Albanian guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, stepped up attacks on Serb targets. The attacks precipitated a major Yugoslav military crackdown.War
Slobodan Milosevic's rejection of an internationally-brokered deal to end the crisis, and the persecution of Kosovar Albanians, led to Nato air strikes against targets in Kosovo and Serbia in March 1999.
A campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians was launched by the Serbian authorities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro and further afield, and thousands died in the conflict.
Serbian forces were driven out in the summer of 1999 and the UN took over the administration of the province.