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For world's newest states, road ahead can be hard

When East Timor voted for independence in 1999, militia loyal to the departing Indonesian rulers went on a rampage that took more than 1,000 lives. War engulfed Kosovo in the late 1990s after it said it was splitting from Serbia, and some 10,000 people died.

Then, as the grieving and the euphoria quieted, the hard and often divisive work of nation-building began. The struggle continues, more than a decade later.

If, as is widely expected, Southern Sudan has opted for independence in the weeklong referendum that ended Saturday, it will become the latest land to grasp statehood in the wake of violent upheaval.

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Associated Press Correspondent Christopher Torchia covered the bloody aftermath of East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia, and is based in Turkey, whose Ottoman ancestors ruled Kosovo, also newly independent. Now, as Southern Sudan votes on whether to declare statehood, he draws on his experiences to explore the challenges that face states born in the 21st century.

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How well will it work? A half-century ago, the world had dozens of examples to study as countries around the globe won their independence from European colonial powers. But today the addition of a new country to the world map is something unusual. So while comparisons can only be imprecise, the first steps of East Timor and Kosovo offer some guidance about the challenges facing the battered yet exultant people of Southern Sudan.

"The expectations of independence are always very high," said Australian academic Damien Kingsbury, noting that the administrators of a new country inevitably lack skills and resources. "The first few years are almost always pretty shaky."

The rough contours in all three cases — southern Sudan in Africa, the far smaller and less populous East Timor in Southeast Asia and Kosovo in the Balkans — are similar: former minorities shaking off a legacy of repression marked by ethnic and religious divides, and hindered by poverty and internal tensions despite international support.

In an even broader sense, the hardship of each raises questions about what makes a nation, if institutions and infrastructure are poorly equipped to handle the responsibilities of statehood in places where borders were drawn by long-gone empires.

In Southern Sudan, the symbol of secession, a hand with an open palm, was not just on the ballot slips; it festoons walls, vehicles and T-shirts, an indicator of enthusiasm for breaking with the north after a 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of civil war. If Sudan splits, the burdens of state that await the south will entail border demarcation, citizenship, security, education, law and accountability, and of oil and cattle-grazing rights in one of the world's poorest regions.

One big plus is the promise of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose base is the mostly Muslim north, that he will accept the referendum results, where most people are Christian or animist. If the pledge is honored, and African states lead the way toward international recognition, a huge hurdle will have been overcome.

But it could take a long time, as Kosovo has learned. Since declaring independence in 2008 with Western support, it has been recognized by well under half the U.N. membership.

Some have concerns about separatist movements on their own turf and worry about setting self-damaging precedents. Spain faces Basque and Catalan separatism. Russia has Chechnya, China has Tibet, India has Kashmir.

For a country like Kosovo, "It leaves you in international limbo," said Tim Judah, author of two books about the new country of 1.8 million. "You're not a state among equals."

In East Timor's case, Indonesia, emerging from a long dictatorship, agreed under pressure to a U.N.-backed referendum in the former Portuguese colony that it had invaded and occupied in 1975. After East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to separate, the rampage condoned by Indonesia destroyed much of the territory's limited infrastructure.

"We are going to start from below zero," Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who is now president of East Timor, said at the time.

The U.N. launched one of the most expensive nation-building projects in history but still drew criticism for scaling back too early. The country declared independence in 2002 in an ecstatic show of music and fireworks, but factional violence erupted four years later, forcing international peacekeepers to patrol the streets once again.

Southern Sudan, whose estimated population ranges between 7.5 million and 9.7 million, suffered the vast majority of deaths in the civil war — some 2 million, many from disease and famine. Since the 2005 deal is has prepared to some extent for statehood, but its autonomous institutions are weak and there are concerns that its own ethnic groups will compete for power and resources. Actor George Clooney's campaigning may have raised Sudan's profile, but any hope of long-term success would require many years of heavy international involvement.

"If you think that intervention, or a referendum, is all it takes, you're sorely mistaken," said David Phillips, a former U.S. State Department official who has worked on post-conflict transitions in Sudan, East Timor and Kosovo. "These countries need a lot of help with state-building and to become economically viable."

Phillips warned that new countries with weak governance are prone to corruption, especially if they benefit from the windfall of newly acquired resources. Most of Sudan's oil reserves are in the south, which would be dependent on the north for export routes.

East Timor, population 1 million, is praised for establishing a fund to manage revenues from offshore oil and gas reserves, but remains desperately poor with fragile political institutions.

Landlocked Kosovo, a key concern for the European Union, avoided the chaos that some predicted after NATO bombing forced its Serbian rulers to yield and it began nearly a decade as a U.N. protectorate. But it has few natural resources, ties between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority are tense, and its image as a criminal haven deepened after a European investigator alleged that Prime Minister Hashim Thaci once headed a ring trafficking in human organs.

Thaci denies it, and some commentators say Serbia's legitimacy as a nation should be judged just as harshly because of its war crimes record.

"What so often happens, once independence is achieved, (is that) all of the conflicts that existed below the surface, and were put aside so you can fight a common enemy, then have a tendency to come out," said Prof. Hurst Hannum, an international law expert at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. "These states are, after all, artificial."

Croatian historian Ivo Banac said a prolonged independence struggle serves as a "basic element of identity" for a new state, and that countries in the Balkans looked for "lines of continuity" to medieval precursors swallowed up by Habsburg and Ottoman rulers. Similarly, he said, Scottish separatists look to their history as a sovereign state before Scotland and England became one kingdom in 1707.

Southern Sudan's clan-based, mostly pastoral population had no such political structure two centuries ago, when it fell under Egyptian and British rule.

But sometimes unexpected unifying themes turn up.

East Timor, a tiny slice of island in the vast Indonesian archipelago, is a separate country today in large part because for centuries it was a Portuguese colony. After Indonesia seized East Timor, it banned the Portuguese language. And when the struggle for independence reached its peak, a battle cry of the separatists was "A luta continua!" That means "The struggle continues" — in Portuguese.