COMMENT: Hopes and dreams deflated in Kosovo

COMMENT: Hopes and dreams deflated in Kosovo
Kosovar's celebrate the February 2008 declaration of independence.
By Alex Young in Pristina February 15, 2018

The February 17 celebrations of the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia will be a largely muted affair. Though Europe’s youngest state is currently competing in its first Winter Olympics, it continues to grapple for international acceptance on other fronts, particularly a seat at the United Nations. It is plagued by a host of domestic problems, including rampant corruption, organised crime and high unemployment, despite multiple international presences. The hopes and dreams of a decade ago have quickly deflated. 

Sensing the international community’s Christmas distraction, 43 members of the Kosovo Assembly moved on December 23 to abrogate the law on the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. The Chambers, which will try former senior figures of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), are located in the Hague due to Kosovo’s inability to handle such cases domestically (especially the protection of witnesses). One need only refer back to Dick Marty's 2010 report, from which the Chambers ultimately derive, to get an idea of likely indictees. 

There were stern reactions from the US and EU to the attempt to scrap the Chambers. For US ambassador Greg Delawie, this would constitute “a stab in the back". The EU’s special representative, Nataliya Apostolova, said it was “appalling”. Though Kosovo’s leadership have seemingly retreated from attempts to scrap the Chambers, they have burned much of what international goodwill remained towards the country.

Though the Chambers will prosecute individual crimes, there is a sense that the entire KLA cause (namely, liberation from Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian forces) is on trial. No one is entirely sure how KLA veterans and society at large (including the Kosovo police) will react, especially if politicians throw fuel on the smouldering fire to detract from their own downfall. 

Patience is fraying on a number of fronts. Kosovo remains without an armed forces; the transformation of its Security Forces is inhibited by the need for a constitutional amendment, which Kosovo’s Serbs oppose. Bids to join Unesco and Interpol floundered. Recognitions have all but dried-up, and Suriname even changed its mind in 2017, withdrawing its earlier decision to recognise Kosovo. 

Kosovo’s citizens remain unable to travel freely to the Schengen zone; the only place in the region denied this capability. An obsession with the demarcation of its border with Montenegro (which has repeatedly stumbled in the Kosovo assembly) has distracted (intentionally nor not) from the other key condition for visa liberalisation: a proven track record of combating organised crime and corruption. The unspoken truth is that there is no enthusiasm within the interior ministries in Berlin, Paris and elsewhere to allow Kosovo’s citizens the same privilege now enjoyed by Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans.

The EU’s renewed enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans has offered little cause for optimism. The hardening of the Spanish position following Catalonia’s own unilateral declaration of independence has lead some to speak of the Western Balkans five, not six (those countries with a feasible accession perspective). President Hashim Thaci’s advisor, Bekim Çollaku, offered sharp words about the instability and tension that could result from failing to offer Kosovo an EU perspective, using the tried and tested narrative of blackmail.   

A survey by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) revealed many Kosovars have a disconcertingly unrealistic understanding of the country’s position, with 37% of those surveyed saying they expect their country to join the EU in 2020. They will be in for a nasty awakening.

This year is also the fifth anniversary of the much-vaunted Brussels Agreement, central to normalising relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Some progress has been achieved; particularly the integration of Serbian judges, police and prosecutors. But normalisation (whatever it means in practice) has not materialised to the extent envisaged. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has vowed to take historic steps to resolve the Gordian Knot of Kosovo, but his internal dialogue process on the matter has yet to generate a consensus in favour of compromise. The prospect of Kosovo’s partition has once again reared its ugly head.  

The assassination of moderate Kosovo Serb politician, Oliver Ivanovic, in mid-January was a reminder of the continued fragility of Kosovo’s predominantly Serb north, where the rule of law has remained largely absent. Ivanovic, a former secretary of state in the Serbian government, had run in opposition to the Belgrade-backed Srpska Lista in recent local elections. His death jolted inter-ethnic relations (despite there being no suggestion at this stage that ethnicity was a factor in his killing), forcing a visit by Vucic to calm nerves. Belgrade has conditioned further dialogue with Pristina on progress in the investigation into his murder. 

On a more positive note, Kosovo’s economy continues to grow, albeit from a low base. But as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes, a host of structural challenges remain; a high level of informal activity, lack of external competitiveness, low labour force participation and a large infrastructure gap. The Trepca mining complex and Brezovica mountains, two of Kosovo’s prized assets, have been gridlocked by politics; their ownership is disputed by Serbia. Eager Brexiteers gauging trade opportunities in the country were disappointed to learn that the possibilities extended to berries, honey and very little else. 

The reality is that Kosovo’s economy fails to create nearly enough jobs to meet the demands of its young population. Fearing another exodus akin to that of 2014-2015 (when an estimated 110,000 departed, but only some 15,000 have since returned), steps were taken to limit coach transport between Pristina and Belgrade last autumn. There is, however, a perpetual drip, drip, drip of migration, which shows few signs of abating.    

As the midwives of Europe’s youngest state, the EU and US are left holding the baby, as Pristina well realises. Several weeks ago, the Pristina authorities were forced to ban traffic from the city centre after recording the highest rates of air pollution in the world. Ten years on from independence, a nasty stench remains in Kosovo’s air.