Dominic Swire in Pristina and Belgrade -
One month on from the anniversary celebrations in the freezing streets of Pristina, questions about Kosovo's status are being raised yet again - this time from a member of the same US administration that supported independence in the first place.
In a recent interview with US broadcaster Voice of America's Serbian language service, former Bush administration diplomat John Bolton expressed uncertainty about US President Obama's policy towards Kosovo. "It is still unclear what the Obama administration policy in the Balkans will be. Although the new state of Kosovo has been relatively stable since the independence declaration, this issue is not closed, nor have other issues that are the consequence of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia," the former diplomat said.
The remarks by Bolton, known for his controversial hawkish stance, is in stark contrast to the letter of support US President Barack Obama sent to his Kosovar counterpart Fatmir Sejdiu to coincide with February's anniversary celebrations. In it, Obama wrote, "I want to stress that the US will continue to support multi-ethnic, independent and democratic Kosovo in its efforts to take a meritorious place as a full member of the community of the states."
Bolton's comments will be seized on by many Serbs, who see Kosovo as the cultural heart of their nation and are desperate to hear any international voices question the legitimacy of its independence. Not only is Kosovo home to numerous Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, its name is strongly associated with epic poetry and historic battles that helped form the Serbian identity. "The importance of Kosovo for Serbia is huge in every respect: national, political, economic, historical, cultural," Zvonimir Stevic, State Secretary and President of the Co-ordination Centre for Kosovo and Metohija, tells bne. "An independent Kosovo is unacceptable for Serbia."
Speaking just days before the anniversary celebrations in February, Stevic claims that the problems of Kosovo today are so dire that they transcend any celebrations that may come as a result of the abstract notion of independence. The reason, he argues, is "because you cannot eat independence, and about 80% of the Albanian population of a working age are unemployed and literally hungry," he says.
"These people don't care about independence, they would just like to have some bread, and something to go with the bread; and they can have all that only if Serbia is present in Kosovo in full capacity. That's a secret wish of a part of the poor Albanians," says Stevic.
It is common knowledge that Kosovo has huge challenges ahead of it, to say the least. Energy is still intermittent, with power cuts plunging even the centre of Pristina into darkness on a regular basis, and poverty is rampant with 45% of the population living on less than €1.42 per day, according to latest figures from the World Bank. Unemployment is also a headache, but not to the extent that Stevic claims, according to the latest UN Human Development Report, which estimates the rate at around 40-50%. On top of this, there is the problem of corruption; Transparency International ranks Kosovo as one of the most corrupt places on the planet in its latest Global Corruption Barometer.
Ethnic Albanian Kosovar Agon Maliqi, a 24-year-old political science graduate now working for an international organisation in Pristina, acknowledges that Kosovo has problems, but nevertheless expresses outrage at Stevic's comments.
"These statements are ridiculous and offensive," he says. "They are a pathetic attempt by Serbian politicians to portray the independence of Kosovo as something unnecessary and unstable, and to somehow suggest that normal life in Kosovo is possible only through Serbian presence." This, he claims, has clear racist overtones, as it implies that "Albanians can prosper only when ruled by Serbs."
The arguments continue on an international stage. Fighting to retain what it sees as its rightful territory has been a key policy of the Serbian government ever since it was elected in May last year. Belgrade has campaigned vigorously against the international recognition of Kosovo and, judging by the number of countries that have officially recognized the newly declared state, it would seem to have had a fair amount of success. Only 55 countries have so far recognized Kosovo as an independent country, a far cry from the 192 that were initially appealed to. Of these, only 22 are EU members, with Slovakia, Spain, Greece, Romania and Cyprus refusing to tow the line despite a resolution from the European Parliament in February urging them to do so. Serb lobbying has also stymied Kosovo's application to become a member of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - two organisations that Pristina is desperate to join.
"Definitely Kosovo is a problem," says a thoughtful Srdjan Gligorijevic, director of analysis at the International and Security Affairs Centre in Belgrade, a think-tank designed to promote EU integration in Serbia. "It will define Serbia's foreign policy, Serbia's defence policy, Serbia's political acting, and to some extent Serbia's economic policy, and so on."
In October, Belgrade scored another diplomatic coup in persuading the UN General Assembly to refer the matter of Kosovo's independence to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Although non-binding, if the ICJ were to conclude in Serbia's favour, and if the recognition rate of Kosovo's independence remained low, this could increase pressure for Belgrade and Pristina to restart status talks.
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