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.
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.
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.
Slavonic and Albanian peoples have lived side by side in Kosovo since the eighth century. The region was the centre of the Serbian empire until the mid-14th century, and Serbs 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 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 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.
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 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 the Serbian authorities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, 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.
President: Atifete Jahjaga
Atifete Jahjaga, was elected Kosovo's first female president by parliament in April 2011, after her predecessor, the Swiss-Kosovan tycoon Behgjet Pacolli, stepped down only two months into his term after the constitutional court ruled his election unlawful.
Ms Jahjaga, a senior police officer, was chosen as an interim compromise candidate between the governing coalition and main opposition party until parliament reaches agreement on direct popular elections for the presidency.
The constitutional court had ruled that the February election was invalid as an opposition walkout had rendered parliament short of a quorum.
Prime minister: Hashim Thaci
Hashim Thaci is a veteran of the ethnic Albanians' drive to break away from Serbia.
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 mainstream political leader. His Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) emerged out of the KLA and finally won an election in November 2007.
The governing coalition collapsed in October 2010 when the junior partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), withdrew.
The following month, parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in Mr Thaci's minority government, and snap elections were set for 12 December.
The PDK emerged as the winner of that election, but by only a small margin - a few points ahead of its main rival and former coalition partner, the LDK.
Days after the election, a Council of Europe report gave fresh life to persistent allegations that the KLA had been involved in the trafficking of organs of Serbs killed during the 1999 conflict.
The allegations were largely directed at the KLA's Drenica Group, which was led by Mr Thaci. He has strongly rejected the allegations.
In February 2011, after weeks of horse-trading, he formed a new coalition government with several small parties and was re-elected as prime minister by parliament. He secured the support of one of his coalition partners, the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR), by agreeing to back AKR founder Behgjet Pacolli's bid for the presidency.
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.
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 Koha concern is the most powerful media group.
The newspaper market is limited; the biggest and most trusted newspaper is the Koha Ditore daily. Some dailies publish editions for Kosovo Albanians 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).