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Kosovo: one year on

Florian Bieber
17 February 2009

st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }

At the end of a narrow road high in the mountains, at the furthest corner of the valley at the southernmost tip of Kosovo, there is a small village called Brod. The people who live here are Gorani, members of a small Slavic Muslim minority in Kosovo. They live mostly off agriculture, including a special cheese sold on market-days in the nearby city of Prizren. Many of their number have moved down from the mountains to Kosovo's capital Pristina, to other parts of former Yugoslavia or to western Europe; but a good number of Gorani remain in this corner of a corner of Europe's newest independent state.

Some of their children go to schools run by Kosovo's ministry of education, following the curriculum in the Bosnian language. Most, however, attend schools established by Serbia's education ministry, studying in Serbian according to the curriculum designed in Belgrade. The parents of the former now proudly self-identify as Bosniaks, proclaiming their loyalty to the Republic of Kosovo declared on 17 February 2008; the parents of the latter continue to call themselves Gorani, and remain sceptical of the new state.
st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }Florian Bieber is lecturer in East European politics at the University of Kent. His books include Post-War Bosnia: Ethnicity, Inequality and Public Sector Governance (Palgrave, 2006). His website is here

The small road has been repaved as far as the main town of the Gora region, Dragash. This apart, the government of the new republic feels remote: far away down the valley, and speaking Albanian, a language many in this part of Kosovo don't understand. Since 1999, the year of the war that broke Belgrade's grip on Kosovo and launched the territory on the path to self-rule, the people of this region (Albanians and Gorani alike) have been unable to receive any television programmes from Pristina.

The Gora region is singular, even unique, within Kosovo. But in this it is also characteristic - for there are many other such pockets where multiple "Kosovos" exist side by side, separated from yet intermingling with each other (in markets, schools, local economies, and imaginations). This makes the question of what Kosovo is today and where it is going hard to answer, but worth asking. 

A land in limbo

The Kosovo parliament declared independence on 17 February 2008 amid hopes of a groundswell of international recognition. The prime minister Hashim Thaci had written that "[the] international community, except for a few countries, has come to understand and support our legitimate right to be an independent state" (see "Kosovo is ready", International Herald Tribune, 5 February 2008). But the initial wave - lovingly recorded on the Kosovo Thanks You website - has since been reduced to a trickle: since October 2008, only Micronesia and Panama have joined the club of fifty-four countries (out of the 192 member-states of the United Nations) to award Kosovo full recognition.  In this sense, independence came for Kosovo with a whimper rather than a bang.

Also in openDemocracy on Kosovo and the region:

Julie Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Paul Hockenos, "Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007)

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

Robert Elsie, "Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity" (25 February 2008)

In some respects, the young state appears to have made progress towards making its independence a reality: Kosovo has appointed its first ambassadors (even if most embassies are not yet in operation), adopted a new constitution in June 2008 and launched a lightly armed security force in January 2009 (although security remains the exclusive domain of KFOR).

However, Kosovo's independent status has the same fictional - even "virtual" - elements as did its formal inclusion in Serbia until a year ago.  True, this accords with the plan for conditional independence proposed by UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari in 2007, which included many forms of international supervision and restrictions on the new state. Both supporters and opponents of independence have long argued that the condition was like pregnancy - you either were or you weren't. The reality in Kosovo today proves them wrong: Kosovo is indeed "a little bit independent".

Kosovo's independence is restrained on three sides. First, the limited number of countries which have recognised Kosovo limit its ability to join a major international organisation in the foreseeable future; yet without membership of (for example) the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or the Council of Europe, much of the benefits of independence remain out of reach for the country.

Second, the formal restrictions on independence contained in the Ahtisaari plan ensure that international authorities (the equivalent of the High Representative" in Bosnia) make the final decisions in many aspects of government.

Third, Serbia's refusal to recognise Kosovo and its continued support for the Serb-inhabited enclaves (the northern region around the town of Mitrovica in particular) mean that the Kosovo government is unable to exert control over the entire country.

Thus, Kosovo's government might have more say that its pre-independence predecessor (the "Provisional Institutions of Self-Government"), but far less than the government of a sovereign country might expect.

The alphabet-soup country

Kosovo's independence may not have been planned with the end-point of full self-government in mind, but it was intended to simplify and clarify the complexities of the international administration installed after the war of March-June 1999. Instead, the international presence grew more complicated.

The titles tell much of the story. After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI, in UN-language), the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMiK) drastically reduced its activities as it waited for some of its newer partners to arrive: among them ECLO, EUSR, ICO and EULEX.

These names in turn reflect international agreement that the European Union would replace the United Nations in Kosovo, though in the event they exist in parallel. UNMiK remains, if in limbo, in part because the EU took such a long time to take over. Indeed, its presence in the country has a touch of ambiguity. The European Commission Liaison Office (ECLO) - with some eighty staff - behaves like an EC delegation in other countries, though it lacks this formal designation as not all EU members recognise Kosovo.

Moreover, the EU Special Representative (EUSR), Pieter Feith, is in charge of EU policy to towards Kosovo; at the same time he heads the International Civilian Office (ICO), charged with supervising the implementation of the Ahtisaari plan. It is important to remember which hat he is wearing: in his ICO role, Feith has urged Montenegro and Macedonia to recognise Kosovo; but as EUSR, he cannot take a clear position on independence.

It doesn't stop there. EULEX advises Kosovo on legal reform. The original intention was that this process too would operate within the framework of the Ahtsaari plan. However, the six-point agreement with Serbia which secured EULEX's deployment in the Serb enclaves of Kosovo also restricts its mandate to the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which brought the 1999 war to an end - and which established Kosovo as a protectorate.

This international confusion might seem to resemble a scholastic medieval debate - but it has had some real- life consequences. For example, international missions in Kosovo are divided between the "status neutral" and those supportive of Kosovo's independence; this, along with the multitude of actors, often makes communication difficult and blurs lines of responsibility. The European Union's various roles accentuate its different priorities; in trying to appeal to everybody - from EU members which don't recognise Kosovo, to the Serbian government, Serbs in the enclaves and the Kosovo government - it risks living in contradiction.

The complexity of international missions also translates to Kosovo's own institutions. In the field of minority rights, for example, Kosovo now has an office with the prime minister, a ministry, a council with the president and a committee in parliament all dealing with communities. The degree of commitment might at first glance seem impressive; but a second look suggests an excessive and complicated number of institutions, something that might in itself do more harm than good.

Bad news, good news

Kosovo's independence was never going to resolve in an instant all the country's problems, many of which were and are of long standing. But there was hope that it would at least shift responsibility to the Kosovo political elite and force it to develop policies to respond to immediate challenges - perhaps especially poverty, unemployment and economic underdevelopment. In the event, independence has brought more confusion. The various international arrangements, overlapping responsibilities and competing authorities in different parts of the country leave questions about internal stability, territorial integrity, and the role of Serbia continually open, in a way that overshadows urgent economic and social problems.

Kosovo did not change drastically after 17 February 2008. This is both bad and good news. The new reality has not transformed politics or the role of international actors in the country; many citizens, especially from minority communities (including the Gorani), have not been able easily to identify with the new state. The good news is the absence of conflict inside Kosovo; and the fact that despite Serbia's opposition to independence, interethnic relations have remained stabile.

The absence of a crisis one year on is far from enough to satisfy anyone in Kosovo. It might also be less than what Kosovo can afford. But while Kosovo's independence is here to stay, it is likely to remain just what it is now: a little bit independent.

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