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Independent Kosovo faces new realities

On its first birthday, Kosovo is coping with widespread unemployment and massive corruption.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 2009

Independence day: Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians celebrated the first anniversary of independence on Tuesday in the capital Pristina.

Hazir Reka/Reuters

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Pristina, Kosovo

Kosovo's long quest for independence ended a year ago with fireworks, a philharmonic debut of a national anthem, celebrations of a new flag and Constitution – and great relief by the 95 percent Albanian majority nine years after NATO forced an end to ethnic cleansing by Serbs.

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The first birthday is also a gala affair: Streets were filled with families Tuesday greeting each other in the crackling cold. Some 54 states, including the United States and seven of the G-8, recognized Kosovo in the past year, bringing a greater sense of security – and an end to life in limbo.

Diplomats say that the central lesson of the past 12 months is what did not happen in this tiny Balkan nation, where a megalith statue spelling "newborn" still sits in downtown Pristina, the capital.

When Kosovo and the West bucked Russia and Serbia and backed independence, this contested land was called the epicenter of a new cold war. Many predicted a new war and instability, floods of refugees from the 10 Serbian enclaves, and a domino effect of upstart secessionist declarations.

Despite a brief Serb attack on the United Nations last March in Mitrovica, the worst was avoided. "None of the awful predictions took place, and that's huge," says a senior UN official here.

Belgrade "did not meddle," says Jacques Rupnik at Sciences Po in Paris, since Serbia, under President Tadic, wants to join the EU. "The announced catastrophe didn't happen."

Yet euphoria over freedom has evolved into a sober set of hopes and fears among Kosovars – and a new realism has emerged. The country faces about a 40 percent jobless rate, massive corruption, bitter political rivalries, ongoing water and power cuts, and sharper criticism of international missions as variously overbearing, disinterested, and in need of reform.

"For 10 years we linked every problem to status. We thought independence was going to simplify things," says Shpend Ahmeti, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Pristina. "It has not. Independence has removed a mental block among Kosovars. Now, in every poll, the priority is not status, but jobs. We've moved from survival, to development and prosperity as a great need we don't yet have."

"Things relaxed a little, but not a lot," says Agron Bajrami, editor of Koha Ditore, a leading paper here. "For the average person, it is about life tomorrow, life today."

In the Serbian enclaves, most prominently Mitrovica in the north, Serbs are not celebrating the anniversary. Belgrade does not recognize Pristina as the capital of a new state. And over the past decade, Serbs here have gone from a rich to a poor minority.

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