The morning of January 14, 2017, was slated to be a historic moment in Kosovo-Serbia relations. It had recently been announced that, for the first time in nearly eighteen years, rail service would commence between the Serbian capital of Belgrade and the northern Kosovan city of Mitrovica. Eager onlookers gathered in Belgrade to witness the inaugural departure, which would mark an important development in promoting free movement between the neighboring nations. But as soon as the locomotive was unveiled, the pleasant façade began to dissolve: the train, painted in Serbian colors and decorated with traditional Orthodox artwork, bore the inflammatory slogan “Kosovo is Serbia.” As politicians in both nations dueled in a war of words, Kosovan police forces armed the border, intent on halting the train before it could enter Kosovan territory. Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic ordered it to stop, but not for fear of conflict – he claimed that the rails ahead had been sabotaged by Kosovo Albanians. What began as an effort to foster closer ties between neighboring countries nearly concluded with a military confrontation, further unravelling Kosovo’s already-tenuous relationship with Serbia.
Ten years after unilaterally declaring independence in 2008, Kosovo remains haunted by many of the same nationalist and ethnic tensions that fueled the bloody Kosovo War at the turn of the century. Prolonged conflict has played a major role in shaping the social and political landscape of modern Kosovo, a nation which has long been the victim of relentless identity politics pitting ethnic Albanians against ethnic Serbs. Situated in a landlocked region of the Balkans with Serbia to the northeast and Albania to the southwest, Kosovo carries historic importance for both Albanians and Serbs, who have resided as uneasy neighbors for centuries. In medieval times, Kosovo was a cultural and economic center of the Orthodox Serbian state; this was followed in the 15th century by four centuries of Ottoman rule, which saw the expansion of the Muslim Albanians in Kosovo. Under Communist rule, Kosovo became an “autonomous province” of Serbia, in spite of its growing Albanian majority. In the early 1990s, tensions between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians further escalated due to a policy of cultural repression under Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. While Kosovan Albanians initially responded with the creation of a non-violent movement devoted to Kosovo’s independence, a paramilitary group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army soon gained traction, and in 1998 met Serbian forces in violent conflict, marking the onset of the Kosovo War. Tens of thousands of Kosovans fled the country in a war that lasted for over a year. The military involvement of the international community eventually compelled Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo, and in 1999, the country was placed under the administration of the United Nations. In 2008, Kosovo controversially declared independence from Serbia, a decision whose legal standing was upheld by the International Court of Justice.
Faced with the monumental task of placating both an Albanian majority and Serbian minority, Kosovo’s political system has continued to experience the strain of inefficiency and corruption. While the Kosovan constitution guarantees at least ten seats for Serbs in a parliament of 120, as well as places for Serbs in the government, politics is still largely divided along ethnic lines. Until 2013, many northern Kosovan municipalities were under the de facto control of Serbian-sponsored institutions; poor relations between ethnic Serbian authorities and their central government counterparts continue to pose an issue. On the regional level, local governments suffer from the influence of civil servants concerned primarily with political gain, while the national government is plagued by legislative gridlock. In 2016, for instance, the Kosovo Serbian opposition party Srpska Lista carried out a six-month boycott of the National Assembly to protest a border agreement with Montenegro, further exacerbating legislative tensions. As a result, confidence in the government is low, even among politicians: the former prime minister predicted that the current government, under Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, would last no more than six months. According to a survey conducted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), only 21 percent of Kosovan citizens expressed any satisfaction with the performance of their government overall.
Confidence in the judicial system fares even worse, with only 18 percent of citizens satisfied with the work of Kosovan courts. A recent report from USAID notes that courts have failed to meet expectations in matters of “efficiency, transparency, independence, and accountability,” underscoring systemic problems in the judiciary. Kosovan courts experience many of the same difficulties as the political system, most notably in their continued struggle to balance local and national prerogatives. Justice is dispensed by a complex web of central and regional courts, which hold jurisdiction in civil, criminal, or “administrative” matters; many owe their primary loyalty to either ethnically Serbian or Albanian citizens. One 2017 initiative, aimed at promoting judicial uniformity and integration, failed when a group of Serbian judges voiced concerns over its implications for the status of local courts overseeing Kosovo Serbs. Plans for incorporating these courts into the national system fell through in October 2017, when forty Serbian judges and fourteen prosecutors failed to appear to be sworn into office.
On the global stage, Kosovo has experienced moderate success, having gained membership to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Council of Europe Development Bank. However, only 110 countries worldwide recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, a status which has made it difficult to broach membership in the United Nations and European Union. While the European Union plays a major part in the continued development of Kosovan institutions and the economy, Kosovo’s ongoing political dispute with Serbia has reduced support for Kosovo’s candidacy. This has opened the door to the projection of Russian influence in the region, particularly owing to Russia’s close ties with Serbia. The infamous “Kosovo is Serbia” train was Russian-made, and the incident incited further pro-Putin actions on the part of many Kosovo Serbs, who afterwards constructed a wall in northern Kosovo and plastered it with Putin posters. Russian involvement continues to widen the growing divide between Albanians and Serbs at the expense of national unity. As with other non-Orthodox and pro-EU Balkan nations, Kosovo has found itself summarily excluded from Putin’s policy of Orthodox and Slavic solidarity.
Kosovo’s economy has seen moderate growth over the last few years and has proven more resilient to global crises than other Balkan nations. Unfortunately, this is not indicative of economic conditions as a whole: Kosovo remains the second-poorest country in Europe, with an unemployment rate of 30 percent and a youth unemployment rate of 60 percent. Nearly 30 percent of citizens live below the poverty line, and a deficiency in agricultural development has made small-scale subsistence farming a common situation. Kosovo’s GDP betrays an unaddressed need for economic development, with remittances from emigrants accounting for almost 15 percent of the GDP and international aid accounting for another 10 percent. While the economic situation is the result of many factors, a long-term cause of concern is the state of the Kosovan education system. USAID reports that the quality of education in Kosovan universities is sub-par, and this does not bode well for addressing the needs of the economy going forward. Educational initiatives will need to focus on improving pedagogy at all levels of schooling, as well as narrowing the wide gender gap in science and technology. Aid from abroad can only accomplish so much—Kosovo must address the underlying problems prohibiting economic development before it can hope to play a larger role in the world economy.
With a long history of ethnic tension and a legacy of Communist governance, Kosovo has faced an uphill battle in its first ten years of independence. While some progress has been made in forming a democratic government and implementing a cogent body of laws, Kosovo continues to struggle under the weight of domestic political, economic, and social ills, as well as questions of international recognition. As for relations with Serbia, much room for improvement remains. A recent headline on Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic’s website succinctly summarizes the current state of affairs: “It must be clear to everyone that we will never recognize Kosovo-Metohija’s independence.”