Any national independence movement must have two objectives, the first one, obviously, is to achieve independence, the second is to build a secure, prosperous and well-functioning state afterwards. Kosovo, Europe’s youngest country is now ten years into the second objective having celebrated the tenth anniversary of its breaking away from Serbia on Saturday. So how successful has Kosovo been to date at achieving the second objective of independence – establishing a secure, prosperous and well-functioning state. This is perhaps best answered by looking at one statistic: since 2008 nearly 10 percent of the country’s 1.8 million people have chosen to leave.
The lack of a visa-free travel arrangement between Pristina and the EU has meant that many of those who have left for Europe have done so via irregular means: risking their lives in the mountains in winter or hiding in inhuman conditions inside trucks. Some have died crossing rivers in an attempt to reach Hungary.
Despite steady GDP growth of 3-4% per year since 2008, the Kosovan economy has never taken off, and this is causing the desperation that is driving so many people to leave. An official unemployment rate of 27 percent means that graduates who come out every year from newly established public and private universities in Pristina and other cities have to compete for a limited number of jobs. While unemployment and low living standards may be the most pressing concerns for average Kosovans, from an EU perspective it is the slow pace of establishing a due respect for the rule of law that is of most concern.
When inefficiency is combined with the inability to deal with sensitive cases such as corruption, the public ceases to believe in the judicial system itself, and the same applies to Kosovo’s partners, namely the European Union and the United States. The former continues to finance EULEX to deal with cases that the courts in Pristina can’t handle for one reason or another. This year should see the opening of the new Special Court for alleged war crimes committed between 1998 – 2000 by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in the Hague. Setting up the new court has, however, proved extremely problematic with Pristina making several attempts to block its activity.
Following international criticism, however, Kosovo seems to have backtracked and could become the only entity of the former Yugoslavia to have an ad-hoc court to independently prosecute crimes committed in its recent past, a commitment that should help Pristina gain more credibility and international support.
So far, Kosovo has been recognised by 116 diplomatic missions from around the world, which is too few for it to be accepted as a member of the UN or any of its organisations. Likewise, no progress has been made in convincing the five EU countries that do not recognize the declaration of independence ten years ago to change their mind. Despite the divisions, the EU has demonstrated its willingness to engage in relations with Kosovo by signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement in 2016 which provides for a clear reform agenda in the years to come. However, the most recent Strategy for the Western Balkans confirms that Kosovo’s path to European integration remains a very long one.
The process of reconciliation between the Albanian majority and the other communities in the country is also slow. The Serbian minority continues to live a parallel existence to the Albanian majority, running its own educational, medical and cultural facilities. The country is no closer to closing this division, especially in the northern municipalities, which have been shaken in recent weeks by the murder of political leader Oliver Ivanović.
On paper, Kosovo is a multi-ethnic country in which the Albanian and Serbian languages are guaranteed by the Constitution. Its legislation is among the most modern, but in practice it remains largely unenforceable. In theory, the environment for foreign investment has made significant progress, but investors are still not willing to bet on the country. In their place, hundreds of millions of euros in remittances flow from the diaspora to feed their unemployed family members back home. As long as this does not improve, there remains little hope for change and opportunity for the average Kosovan.