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

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

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.

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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.

Some Kosovars, such as publisher Migjen Kelmendi, say Albanians must start to understand that Serbs now feel victimized. "Albanians are experiencing a kind of liberty, what we dreamed of for many years. But we have not yet understood, can't imagine, what Serbs are going through. For them, this is a nightmare. The question is, can we build a civic state?"

The answer now appears to be no. A highly contentious debate in Pristina took place last November when a "six-point plan" was announced by UN chief Ban Ki Moon. It allows for Serb administration of its "parallel structures" in the enclaves. The plan is designed to keep the peace – but de facto abrogates the new Constitution and the Athisaari Plan, the road map for Kosovo statehood, and is widely seen as step one toward a partition of Mitrovica.

Many here feel that the international community is trying to maintain a short-term stability, at the expense of Kosovo's long-term interests.

"The international community presented the whole story of Kosovo as ethnic, when it is becoming an economic development story," says Mr. Ahmeti. "The UN and the EU need to stay, but shift from offering grants, transfers, assistance, and micromanagement, to help in actual growth."

Albin Kurti, a critic of the UN presence here, says the ethnic emphasis by internationals is designed to manage crisis as groups live side by side. But what is now needed, he argues, is for Serbs and Albanians to live together in one Kosovo. "Instead of universality, the UN is pushing diversity. It enshrines difference – when what is needed are incentives for Serbs to join us."

As Kosovars shift to building a state – the question of corruption has risen quickly.

The mafia system here is so rampant, so integrated into the structures of society – partly due to the need for an underground economy under the Slobodan Milosevic regime – that some journalists say no problem is larger.

When the UN mission disbanded in December, they say it handed the EU mission some 2,000 files of well documented cases of graft and other illegal activity.

One crucial upcoming decision is a much-delayed contract for a power plant, which is expected to secure Kosovo's power future for decades. The area is rich in lignite, or brown coal.

Kosovo now operates on a 40-year-old plant; power cuts come daily. The subject is a vexing one – since locals blame the international community for nine years of delay. The plant, likely to be a 2,000 megawatt facility, is key to building any industry. Four major corporations are bidding on a nearly €2.47 billion facility that could supply power to the entire region.

Despite the problems Kosovo faces, Chris Hall, president of the American University here, says that the cessation of violence is a minor miracle. "My grandfather in England always used to say, 'Come spring, will there be trouble in the Balkans?' But I think this year we can almost say there won't be trouble."

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