As the Republic of Kosovo nears its ten-year anniversary since its independence from Serbia, there is little to celebrate in the streets of Pristina. A decade of weak economic growth, hindered by strict visa regimes and a lack of international recognition, has left the country’s future as a legitimate nation state in question.
Kosovo’s road to recognition was never going to be easy after the nation unilaterally declared independence in February of 2008. Following the Kosovo War, Kosovo was placed under UN administration, with a NATO peacekeeping force serving as a guide towards the establishment of a stable and secure internal territory under Serbian governance.
UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which established UN transitional administration, has since lost all force in the region and now serves as a pipe dream for ethnic Serbs living in Kosovar territory. Despite Resolution 1244 making no reference to an independent Kosovo, the International Court of Justice ‘s 2010 verdict states that Kosovo’s independence declaration was not illegal. This setting aside of the Resolution’s terms has strengthened Kosovo’s claim to independence as a nation state.
Ten years after independence, 113 out of 193 UN member states recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty, including 23 EU member states. However, two Permanent Five members – namely the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China – do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, thereby permanently denying UN membership to Kosovo. Russia’s close ties to Serbia and China’s continued treatment of Taiwan as an integral province of the People’s Republic preclude these countries from supporting an independent Kosovo – or any independence movement for that matter.
Two of the five EU nation states that do not support Kosovo’s independence, Spain and Greece, have adopted this stance as a signal to domestic and regional governments (Catalonia and Macedonia, respectively) that irredentist policies will not be tolerated.
Having been denied a seat at the UN table, Kosovo is stagnating. The country has a youth unemployment rate of nearly 60%, and opportunities for regional development hampered by claims of illegitimacy. Without EU membership or an official candidacy bid, Kosovo is unable to attract foreign workers and negotiate trade and economic deals with its significant neighbours. Access to forums, including the UN and the EU, afford countries opportunities to engage in multilateral negotiations essential to trade and foreign investment.
In addition, the country’s clear lack of forward-thinking political leaders has restricted meaningful policy development. Kosovo still bears the economic scars of the ’98-99 war and has been unable to revitalise primary industries capable of employing the majority of citizens. High interest rates and a lack of modern agricultural technology contribute to economic inertia.
In the face of this continued opposition to independence by its closest neighbours, what will the next years of independence look like for Kosovo? In essence, there are two key elements to smoothing Kosovo’s path to legitimacy as an independent nation state:
Introduction of a new generation of political leaders not haunted by the ghosts of the Kosovo War
Serbia’s recognition or, at the very least, passive acknowledgement of Kosovo’s independence
These two elements are significant as they are changes with the potential to be properly effected in the coming decade.
New political leaders will enable Kosovo to look forward and to start diplomatic dialogue with Serbia and the EU without reference to previous disagreements. Both the President and Prime Minister were leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a group with alleged links to politicians accused of perpetrating crimes against humanity in the 1990s. Younger leaders, truly representative of a young a population, would also signal to Kosovars that there is a place for their skills in the country’s development.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom for these Balkan neighbours. The last piece of the puzzle, Serbia’s acknowledgement of an independent Kosovo, was squashed into place in 2013. The Brussels Agreement was a watershed moment in Serbian-Kosovo relations, as each country agreed not to impede the other’s accession to the European Union. The accord also grants a significant level of autonomy to the Serb-majority regions in Kosovo, with the protection of minority rights one of the major obstacles blocking Kosovo’s entry into the EU. This autonomy has not been granted without significant domestic opposition in the Albanian-majority areas and there does not yet seem to be an equitable solution from both sides.
In addition, the inclusion of Kosovo in soft power events such as the Olympics and Eurovision helps to boost its soft-power credentials and promotes recognition of the country’s sovereignty. This inclusion is crucial to the future of Kosovo’s future status as it provides a sense of hope and inclusion for Kosovo's youth. The participation of one Kosovar athlete at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, along with the winning of a gold medal at the summer Olympic Games in 2016 demonstrate the likeliest path forward for the foreseeable future for Kosovo, with quasi-legitimacy on the world stage for the time being. Even the creation of an international calling code for Kosovo in 2016 (+383) evidences the minute yet necessary steps taken by Kosovo in its continued quest for recognition as a nation state.
At a time when European secessionist movements are continually gaining traction, the Republic of Kosovo is still attempting to stand on its own two feet and walk towards EU and UN membership and universal recognition of its territorial sovereignty. Each step forward has been hard fought and significantly more progress will be needed to ensure that Kosovo can develop in the modern, European context to which it now belongs.
Happy Birthday, Kosovo! Make a wish!
Alexander Blackwell is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.