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A Time to Reflect

On 17 February, the youngest state born from the dissolution of Yugoslavia marked 10 years of independence.

by Riccardo Celeghini 19 February 2018

For most, it was a day of joy and pride: a day to remember that Kosovo has come a long way from the oppression of the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to today’s independence, after a bloody war and almost nine years of international supervision. A day in which all the problems currently facing the country and its citizens could be forgotten for a moment.


The risk is that already now, a few days later, the list of problems is still there, and this special anniversary will not have led to deep enough reflections on Kosovo’s future and what needs to be done. Only then could 2018 also become a year of change – change that Kosovo’s citizens deserve.


The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


Since the day when Kosovo’s leaders addressed parliament to declare Kosovo an independent and sovereign state, many things have improved. The economy has constantly expanded and currently displays the highest GDP growth in the Balkans. The number of ethnically motivated incidents has decreased in the last few years, and the integration of national minorities into the public administration and the police force has produced important results: many people from all national communities have been hired in the public sector and around 10 percent of the country’s police officers hail from a minority. The role of women, especially in the cities, has considerably improved, with strides made in the labor market, including a rising share of high-level positions. And in 2017 the first gay pride parade took place through the streets of the capital Pristina, a sign of growing tolerance. For a country born only a decade ago after generations of underdevelopment and a recent war, those results should not be underestimated.


Image from an independence day parade in downtown Pristina, via euronews/Youtube.


That said, this anniversary should not be reduced to praise only what has been achieved. Whoever walks through the streets of Kosovo can hear words of deep and widespread dissatisfaction. Economic growth has not led to broader improvements in the quality of life. Corruption and organized crime have drastically hindered competitiveness and productivity. The main sources of income remain the remittances from Kosovars working abroad, especially in Germany and Switzerland (in total, more than 600,000 people), while the private sector struggles to develop, faced with the weak rule of law, power shortages, and limited access to capital and to international markets.


In this context, the situation of young people gives cause for concern. In particular, they continue to suffer from the lack of quality job opportunities, and more than half of them remain unemployed. Even well-educated youngsters face many challenges in building a professional career because of nepotism and the lack of a true meritocracy, but also the limited connection between their studies and the actual job market. The impact is even more devastating, given that Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, with 42 percent of it under 25 years old. The consequence is that many – too many – of them want to leave Kosovo as soon as possible. Their paths are varied (scholarships at universities in foreign countries, asylum applications, relatives living abroad) but the reason is the same: they believe that in Kosovo future prospects do not exist, at least for them.


If we go beyond the data on interethnic relations, all that glitters is not gold as well. It is extremely important that violence fell, but it is also true that contacts and dialogue between communities are often very low, if not nonexistent. In particular, the Kosovo Serbs continue to live in enclaves south of the Ibar River or in the northern municipalities bordering Serbia: while the former have more contacts with Kosovo Albanians, the latter live separately from the rest of the country, without opportunities and security. The recent killing of the Kosovo Serb politicians Oliver Ivanovic has shown that the situation in the north is still far from normalized. As regards other ethnic minorities, very little progress has been made: in particular, the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities remain on the margins of society.


What concerns the international community the most is the rise of religious fundamentalism. Kosovo had been a secular society for decades, but in recent years Islamic fanaticism has taken root, especially – and alarmingly – among young people. The lack of jobs has fueled support for extremism, promoted by organizations funded by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. For years, these organizations, often presenting themselves as charities or NGOs, have worked to propagate Wahhabism among Albanian Muslims, taking advantage of the organizational weakness of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, whose leadership looks unable to block radical influences. Some of the practices these groups use in their proselytism are well-known: free courses about the Koran, paid traineeships as imams in Saudi Arabia, and monthly stipends to women who wear the veil and men who grow beards.


The net result is frightening. According to official estimates of Kosovo’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, more than 300 Kosovo citizens have joined ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq – one of the largest flows of foreign fighters per capita in Europe. Most of them are young people coming from depressed and peripheral areas of the country, and a large part grew up in families not consumed with fundamentalism. While in recent months reports of individuals leaving for the frontline have decreased, the risks associated with the return of the foreign fighters remain.


On the Agenda for 2018


Kosovo has a full range of hot-button issues to deal with this year: at the top of the list are the controversial Special Court, border demarcation with Montenegro, and talks with Serbia.


Created in 2015 with the purpose of prosecuting the crimes committed during and after the Kosovo war by ethnic Albanian guerrillas, the Special Court is now under attack by many local politicians. They deride its mission as an injustice against the fight for freedom, and clearly many of them are themselves fearful of possible indictment over their own wartime actions. The ability to withstand such criticism and more forward with sensitive cases, even if they strike at individuals in the highest echelons of the state, would be an important step to measure the maturity of its democracy.


The border demarcation dispute with Montenegro has also brought tempers to the boiling point. Montenegro’s parliament has ratified the agreement, but opponents in the Kosovo legislature have condemned it and disrupted proceedings to delay work on the demarcation, which they say will see Kosovo lose 8,000 hectares of land. The EU has made ratification a condition of visa-free travel for Kosovans, the last citizens of any Balkan country who do not enjoy the privilege. As a consequence, the current impasse is deeply damaging the country: the best present for the 10th anniversary would be to quickly solve the dispute and finally give Kosovo’s citizens the opportunity to travel freely.


Lastly, and most certainly the most challenging nut to crack is the negotiation process with Serbia. The EU-facilitated talks between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo, which began in 2011, have now reached a stalemate, in particular over the implementation of the 2013 Brussels Agreement. The Kosovo Serbs are still waiting for one of the main promises of that deal: the creation of an association of Serb-majority municipalities, a body that should provide more autonomy for these municipalities. While Belgrade continues to oppose Kosovo’s independence, President Aleksandar Vucic has announced a public discussion among Serbian institutions, politicians, and society that should end with a final proposal on the status of Kosovo. The aim is to achieve a solution by the spring, which will hopefully foster talks with Pristina.


None of the above should suggest that Kosovo is a failed state, with problems so different from those of some of its equally poor neighbors. But it is a state that must do more for its citizens, and quickly move forward after the hangover from the recent celebrations wears off.

Riccardo Celeghini works for an NGO in Kosovo dealing with education, rural development, and violence against women. He writes about Southeastern Europe for the Italian magazine EastJournal. His master’s thesis at the University of Roma Tre covered ethnic conflict and democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
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