February 17 marks ten years since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, with Kosovans, their neighbours and the international community all taking stock of the past decade.
Kosovo’s successes in institution-building and international relations outweigh the challenges, including the disputed country’s ongoing struggle to join the United Nations, Kosovan President Hashim Thaci told bne IntelliNews in an interview in Pristina.
“We are working now to enter into the concluding phase of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia,” Thaci said, adding that he hoped this would lead not only to a historic settlement for the troubled Balkan region, but the holy grail of UN membership for Kosovo.
“And if there’s the will, why not also have Serbia recognising Kosovo?” said Thaci, the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought against Serb forces in the 1998-99 war. “I’m fully aware that this is an ambitious plan, but with no ambitions you cannot expect to achieve your goals.”
Thaci singles out Russia’s veto on Kosovo’s UN membership, through its membership of the UN Security Council, as a leading “external challenge”.
“Without this veto, Kosovo’s consolidation in the international arena would have been complete,” he said.
But Moscow is not the only country opposing Kosovo’s recognition as an independent state. China, another UN Security Council member, has also not recognised the statelet, and “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia”. Like many countries, it is likely to be wary of comparisons drawn between its restive ethnic-minority regions and Kosovo. The same is true of Spain, one of five EU countries which do not recognise Kosovo (the others being Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia).
The recent ructions over proposed independence for Catalonia seem to have led to Madrid hardening its stance towards Kosovo, issuing a “non-paper” on the EU and the Western Balkans that reportedly said “Kosovo is not part of the [EU] enlargement process”. The recent European Commission strategy on the Western Balkans also shies away from references to Kosovo’s EU accession, possibly as a result of Spanish pressure.
Thaci, however, rejects comparisons between Kosovo and other disputed territories — in the past telling bne IntelliNews that Russia’s annexation of Crimea could not be compared to Kosovo’s independence “in any circumstances”.
“Voices comparing Kosovo with Catalonia do not stand,” he said. “Catalonia is not Kosovo, just as Spain is not Serbia. Serbia committed state-sponsored genocide in Kosovo. We still think that Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Romania, will all recognise Kosovo.”
Thaci points out that longer-term Spanish policy is rather supportive of Kosovo. Madrid endorses the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo’s self-government and membership of international bodies, and Spanish troops participate in the Nato presence in the territory.
Thaci is on the defensive about Kosovo’s absolutely vital relationship with the US. Kosovan parliamentarians recently moved to scrap a specialist chamber (court) to try former KLA members for alleged crimes. This led to an extraordinarily strongly-worded condemnation by the US embassy in Pristina, warning of “profound negative consequences for Kosovo’s European future and its relationship with the United States”. Critics accuse Thaci and other senior figures including Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj of being behind the attempt to scupper the court. Thaci himself has been accused of heading a criminal organisation involved in organ-trafficking, as well as other links to organised crime.
The president rejects all these charges, saying that he expended significant political capital backing the process while prime minister and then foreign minister (and leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo), despite his personal objections to it.
“I have myself, together with our international partners, pushed forward the establishment of the specialist chamber in 2015. This is an irreversible process. I have stressed that this is a historical injustice towards Kosovo. But for the sake of our partnership with the EU, Nato, and the US, I was sure to convince MPs and pass the two-thirds majority needed to pass the law in our assembly. I was much criticised at the time, but we did this for our sake — our future partnership with our allies.”
Thaci argues that the court is unprecedented, given that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) concluded its work at the end of last year, and that the KLA was responding to “state-sponsored genocide”.
“But there will be literally nothing, no price that will threaten or undermine our partnership with the EU, Nato and the US,” he insisted.
But some feel that the damage has already been done.
“Thaci keeps mis-stepping, for the first time in twenty years,” says one Western diplomat. “The big test for Kosovo is how it rides out the specialist court. The old guard may be dragged off to The Hague — and what fills the vacuum?”
Thaci insists that he is not guilty, and nor is he old — he points out that he is still only 49, and says that he has “never felt more energised” as he looks back on ten years of Kosovo’s independence, throughout which he has been its most influential figure.
“We have built and now have fully-operational local and central institutions,” he says. “They operate fully in line with the best European and Western standards and practices.”
Thaci says that he will continue to push for judicial reform and enhancing the rule of law, saying that Kosovo’s problems are not dissimilar to those of other countries in the Western Balkans and indeed elsewhere.
However, this feeling is far from universal. Corruption is seen as pervasive, and linked to an impenetrable political and business elite. Transparency International ranks Kosovo 95th in the world on its corruption perceptions index, below Panama and Belarus. Property rights are weakly enforced, to the frustration of Serb refugee returnees in particular. Governments of all stripes are accused of stuffing the overweight public administration and state bodies with political appointees, many of limited competence.
“The elite has the advantage,” says one Kosovan observer. “My children in ten years will be at a huge disadvantage to those of Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj. Kosovo is much better than ten years ago, but I can see people who drive BMWs just because they have political positions.”
Meanwhile, reasonably high economic growth is more reflective of remittances flooding into a relatively poor place, often into real estate, than growing investment in industries to support job creation in the longer term.
Nearly 190,000 Kosovans have left the country over the past ten years, generating upwards of €500mn for people-smugglers, according to Agron Demi, a policy analyst and commentator. He describes this as a “social safety valve” that has released some of the pressure from a country with 50%-plus youth unemployment in which connections are necessary to get many jobs.
The atmosphere in Kosovo is one of happiness about the anniversary of independence — among the vast majority of the population who are ethnic Albanians at least. But more and more say that the country needs new leaders, and a refreshed political class. Court or no court, that may mean Thaci’s wish to retire at some stage may be granted sooner rather than later.