15 years after independence, is Kosovo on the verge of a breakthrough?

15 years after independence, is Kosovo on the verge of a breakthrough?
It's now 15 years since Europe's youngest country, Kosovo, declared its independence from Serbia back in 2008.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje February 16, 2023

Kosovo will mark the 15th anniversary of its independence from Serbia on February 17, amid verbal scuffles with Belgrade but with rising hopes that a final resolution between the two foes may be imminent.

Europe’s youngest country, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, has been held back in its quest to join the UN, the EU and other international organisations as it has not yet secured recognition from all states, including influential permanent UN Security Council members Russia and China. 

Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as independent — in fact it has been actively lobbying states to de-recognise Kosovo — and has relied on its old ally Russia to keep Kosovo out of the UN. However, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine radically changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe last year, there is fresh pressure from the EU and US on both sides to reach a compromise. 

Given the increased international pressure, the possibility of a compromise still exists, or else a more serious conflict may arise given the geopolitical circumstances and the war in Ukraine. 

EU and US officials say they expect a solution to be found by the end of this year, a difficult assignment for both Serbia and Kosovo, given that both sides have to make painful concessions; Kosovo has to allow the formation of an Association of Serb Municipalities, while Serbia must allow Kosovo to join international institutions.

Lost autonomy 

Kosovo was a former province of Serbia, which was one of the six republics in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ). In 1974, Kosovo was granted full autonomy within the Yugoslav Federation.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, when Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia declared independence, Kosovo remained part of the Federation, which consisted of Serbia and Montenegro.

Even before that, when Slobodan Milosevic became head of the Communist League of Serbia in the late 1980s, he initiated plans to trim down the autonomy of Kosovo and protect rights of the Serbs there by launching a campaign against Kosovan separatists.

In 1989, President Milosevic proposed a new constitution to strip Albanians in Kosovo of their rights. The move provoked violent protests, which in turn prompted Belgrade to declare a state of emergency and to impose direct rule over the province.

Dissatisfied with the move, the separatists' activities in Kosovo were on the rise. Kosovo Albanians set up the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which sought independence from Serbia. The KLA was funded mainly by the Albanian diaspora, but also by Albanian businessmen, and according to estimates the militant group received up to $100mn for its paramilitary activities. The organisation was designated as terrorist by the Serbian authorities.

The Serbian police and military’s actions against KLA separatists escalated into armed conflict in 1998, which ended with Nato strikes on Serbia in 1999. The strikes forced Serbian forces to withdraw from the province and they were replaced by the Nato-led peacekeeping mission, KFOR, and other international organisations.

Legacy of conflict 

Aside from thousands of deaths, the conflict left thousands of people displaced and missing from both sides. Today 90% of the population is Kosovo Albanians and only 5% or about 100,000 are Serbs, of which half live in the northern Kosovo, with very close ties with Belgrade.

That means they have Serbian IDs, passports, car number plates, health care, education, telecom services and other benefits.

Following the conflict, the KLA was transformed into the Kosovo Protection Corps.

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo’s parliament declared independence and Hashim Thaci, a former KLA political leader, became prime minister. Fatmir Sejdiu was the first president of independent Kosovo.

Serbia disputed the legality of the declaration of independence and asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to determine if it was legal. The ICJ concluded that the declaration did not violate international law and as a result the UN adopted a joint Serbia-EU resolution, which initiated an EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

Milosevic was indicted in May 1999 by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity in Kosovo and other charges. On March 11, 2006, Milosevic was found dead in his prison cell in The Hague detention centre.

More recently, high-ranking Kosovan politicians have also been called to account. Two decades after the war, Thaci faces trial in The Hague. In June 2020, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office filed an ten-count indictment against Thaci and three former KLA commanders for crimes against humanity. As well as being the first prime minister of independent Kosovo, Thaci also served as Kosovo’s president in the period from April 2016 until November 2020, when he was sent to the detention centre.

Escalation in 2022

In 2013, the two sides reached the Brussels Agreement, intended as a foundation for future cooperation and a starting point for reaching a final agreement on the normalisation of their relations.

However, progress since then has been sporadic and 15 years after the declaration of independence, Kosovo and Serbia are still at odds.

The last time the situation escalated was in the summer of 2022 when Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti decided not to recognise ID cards and car number plates issued by Serbian authorities for Serbs living in Kosovo. He asked Serbs to change their car number plates for Kosovan ones. The move sparked protests and rebellious Serbs in the north started erecting barricades, which was supported by the Serbian authorities.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic claimed the new rules meant that Kurti had plans to expel Serbs from Kosovo, and he said that Serbia would not allow this to happen.

The situation calmed down before the New Year holiday, when Vucic, under international pressure, ordered Kosovan Serbs to remove barricades from the roads.

Maximum efforts 

With war now raging in Ukraine, EU and US officials are doing all they can to bring the two sides to the negotiation table to find a comprehensive solution to their dispute in order to avoid another conflict in Europe. 

The latest French-German proposal for Belgrade and Pristina was accepted in principle by Kurti. Vucic seems ready to discuss the plan, but has been criticised by the opposition. The plan sparked divisions in Serbia and snap elections are not excluded.

One sticking point is the Association of Serb Municipalities. Belgrade wants Kosovo to allow the formation of the association in order to discuss the French-German plan further.

However, the authorities in Pristina fear that setting up such association would harm Kosovo’s national interests as it might resemble a mini-state, which would be under Serbian control.

The ultimate goal for the Kosovan side is recognition, but Belgrade still refuses to recognise Kosovo as a separate country. If the plan is accepted, Serbia should allow Kosovo’s entry into international institutions, such as the UN and the Council of Europe. Vucic says that recognition of Kosovo by Serbia was not mentioned in the plan.

Currently Kosovo is recognised by more than 100 countries, but five EU member countries, as well as Serbia’s allies Russia and China, still refuse to accept Kosovo's independence.

Resolving the situation would allow both countries to progress towards EU accession, and would also improve Kosovo’s image in the eyes of international investors. At present, investors are reluctant to come to Kosovo as the situation there is still unstable.

The country of 1.8mn people has one of the highest jobless rates in Europe, and is also struggling with high corruption, a flagging economy and energy issues.

With the north still unstable, the Nato-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, KFOR is present with about 3,700 soldiers. Kosovo’s Security Force (KSF) is tasked to defend the territorial integrity of the country and is under the control of KFOR. Since 2018, KSF has been in the process of transformation into an army, which is expected to take 10 years.