Jakub Stepaniuk looks to the past and future of Europe’s youngest nation to try and understand its present-day status
The Republic of Kosovo, the tiny landlocked nation situated in the mountainous heart of the Balkan Peninsula, has in recent weeks celebrated its first decade of official existence. Regardless of what legal epithet I might be using to describe Kosovo in this article, its depictions as a state, autonomy or disputed territory have historically evoked a plethora of emotions and angry reactions. But why should determining the status of Kosovo be one of the toughest nuts to crack in both national and international diplomacy?
Modern issues surrounding the status of Kosovo can only be understood by looking at the country’s turbulent history. The medieval history of Kosovo serves as the cornerstone of how present-day Serbs construct a sense of their national identity, including moments like the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and symbols such as the relics from the 14th century Visoki Dečani monastery located near Kosovar city of Peć. After a series of 15th century battles, the Ottoman Empire succeeded in subduing large parts of southern Serbia, including the territories of present-day Kosovo. The fear of national persecutions from the new Turkish administration brought about the so-called Great Serbian Exodus, when thousands of Serbs fled towards northern Habsburg`s provinces of Vojvodina and Slavonija. This left desolate areas of Kosovo to be filled by incoming Albanian communities.
Drawn-out battles for liberation in the 19th century led to the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Serbia, which included Kosovo. Yet this did not curb the growth of ethnic Albanian populations. During the creation of Socialist Yugoslavia in 1945, Kosovo obtained the status of special autonomous region within the Socialist Republic of Serbia, which in turn formed one of six constitutional parts comprising the whole federation. The proportion of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo dramatically increased during the Cold War, from 65% in 1953 to 82% in 1989 – the same year ascendant leader of Serbian nationalism, Slobodan Milošević, declared his desire to re-shape the demographics of Kosovo. Milošević helped foster rising ethnic tensions throughout the 1990s, which ultimately led to the outbreak of ethnic cleansing in 1999. An end to the violence was soon achieved through NATO intervention; the twenty years since these horrors has seen the long and arduous process of stabilisation and rebuilding a sense of nationhood.
International interference in Kosovo by NATO soldiers and international administrations – by that of Bill Clinton in particular – has completely polarised how Balkan communities perceive the country’s status. Whereas Kosovar Albanians identify the West as benevolent liberators, Serbs express chagrin towards NATO as an army that dared to rip apart their nation. The Serbs retain widespread international support for their position: Russia has historically supported Belgrade interests in this regard at the UN Security Council, and more than one third of other independent states – including Russia, China and Spain – do not recognise Kosovar sovereignty.
The complex status of their quasi-sovereign state provides a lot of political problems for the government in Pristina. Social and economic conditions remain miserable, and issues like high levels of youth unemployment and corruption are rampant. But the status of Kosovo also causes diplomatic problems for Belgrade – namely, towards its aspirations for joining the EU. Neighbouring countries with similar levels of economic performance such as Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria have all been allowed to join the European community, largely because they do not have to deal with any significant territorial dispute on their borders.
Both sides timidly seek resolution of this issue of status. Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić suggested redrawing existing borders alongside ethnic criteria, which in practice would mean the administrative handover of Serbian-settled Mitrovica in Kosovo in exchange for the Albanian-settled Preševo in Serbia. But history has shown the revision of borders in ethnically varied areas such as the Balkans time and again leading to violence and bloodshed. The continued occurrences of incidents like the assassination of local Serbian politician Oliver Ivanović just one month ago or sporadic devastations of religious temples on both sides of the border can only be effectively dealt with by a definitive determination of Kosovo’s sovereign status.
Another significant issue surrounding Kosovar independence is similar to that which met Crimea one day after the proclamation of its sovereign existence. Tenth anniversary celebrations in Kosovo coincided with the speech by Albanian president, Edi Rama, proposing that the presidential seats in Tirana and Pristina should be merged. This vision, serving as the first step towards the absorption of Kosovar territories by the Albanian government, functions as part of a broader aim for the establishment of a Great Albania formed out of areas settled by ethnic Albanians in Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece.
Kosovo’s first ten years of independence has been defined by continued questions and controversies regarding the country’s sovereign status, which in turn have directly exacerbated the economic misery gripping the country. What the next decade will hold for Kosovo, only time will tell – though the diplomatic gridlock between Kosovo and Serbia must terminated at some point. Decisions on how a final territorial settlement might look for Kosovo ultimately lie in the hands local politicians.