Kosovo on Monday failed in its bid to win membership of the UN cultural body UNESCO, which would have represented a leap forward in its bid for full international recognition.
The former Serbian province came up three votes short of the two-thirds majority required, with 92 member states voting in favour and 50 against.
UNESCO\’s executive board recommended last month that the agency accept Kosovo as a member, despite it not being a UN member state.
But Serbia, which considers Kosovo the cradle of its identity and religion, was strongly opposed to the bid and tried earlier Monday to delay the vote at UNESCO\’s Paris headquarters.
After the vote, Kosovo\’s Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci remained defiant.
"Kosovo\’s path is unstoppable and we will apply to become a member of other organisations, including UNESCO, again," he wrote on Facebook.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic welcomed the result.
"This is a just and moral victory gained in almost impossible conditions, when what is right cannot count on the support of the majority," Nikolic said.
UNESCO membership would have unlocked millions in funds for culture and education in the impoverished province of 1.8 million inhabitants.
Kosovo\’s Prime Minister Isa Mustafa had earlier Monday pledged to protect Serbian Orthodox Christian sites in a bid to allay the fears of countries opposed to its membership bid.
Serbia had warned that Orthodox monuments would be at risk if Kosovo took over their management, citing instances of attacks and looting since the 1998-1999 war between the two sides.
A NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces from Kosovo, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanian and Muslim.
Kosovo is recognised as an independent state by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most European Union countries.
But Russia and China join Serbia in ferociously opposing Kosovo\’s bid for statehood.
Addressing UNESCO on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Kosovo\’s attempt to become a member was "very dangerous".
He said it was a "violation" of the UN Security Council resolution adopted in 1999 to end the conflict which made no mention of the eventuality that Kosovo could become independent.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said Kosovo should never have been allowed to make its bid to join UNESCO.
"If there had been any wisdom, this issue would have been solved through dialogue in Brussels and not by an attempt to humiliate and crush Serbia," he told reporters in Belgrade.
Father Sava Janjic, a Serb Orthodox monk at the UNESCO-listed Decani monastery in Kosovo, who was vocal in his opposition to the drive for membership, struck a conciliatory note after the vote.
"For anyone who asks me who has won, I answer clearly — a chance for a fair dialogue and confidence building has won and not political pressures," he wrote.
It is not the first time that UNESCO has been deeply divided over a membership issue.
In 2011, its members voted to accept Palestine in a decision roundly criticised by the United States and Israel, which have since suspended their financial contributions to the organisation and have therefore lost their voting rights in UNESCO General Conferences.