Nestled in the centre of the Balkans, the Republic of Kosovo is Europe’s youngest country, both politically and demographically. Alongside Bosnia and Albania, it is one of only three majority Muslim states in Europe. It is a small country of only 1.8 million; mostly ethnic Albanians and an Orthodox Serb minority. Like Bosnia, Kosovo emerged from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, governed by a UN mandate until 2008. This week marks its tenth birthday.
Kosovo is recognised by only 113 of the 193 UN states. This puts it in the ambiguous category of ‘partially recognised state’, alongside Taiwan, Palestine, Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus. Serbia’s fellow Orthodox Christian nations like Greece, Romania and Russia, and the former USSR do not recognise Kosovo while the Muslim world is split. Kosovo is neither a member nor observer of the UN.
Green countries recognise Kosovo. Crucially security council members Russia and China do not.
Yugoslavia’s sectarian strife of the 1990s was a legacy of Ottoman imperialism. The divide and rule policy of empires breeds ethnic hatred wherever it is implemented. Most conflicts since WW2, from the partition of India to the Rwandan Genocide result from old imperial policies that kept subject populations divided and favoured one group over another. This leaves deep seated hatred and mistrust along ethnic and religious lines, particularly when land rights are involved.
The Balkans, though under Muslim Turkish, not Christian European, rule was no different. The Ottomans favoured Muslims while taxing Christians higher and stealing their boys to raise as devout soldiers. When the Ottoman Empire retreated from the Balkans in the 19th century, the Austrians and the Russians took their place. The Austro-Hungarian Empire favoured Catholic Croats while the Russians favoured the Serbs. The nationalist zeitgeist which had united Italy and Germany only divided and ‘balkanised’ ethnoreligious lines further.
Kosovo was a tricky case. The small territory is dear to the hearts of many Serbs, being the centre of their old kingdom and the site of the heroic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the invading Turks. Despite this, by the 20th century, the majority population were ethnic Albanians, a non-Slavic folk who adopted Islam under Ottoman rule.
Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were formerly a part of Yugoslavia
Broz Tito united the region after WW2 through his magnetic personality and the internationalist appeal of Pan-Slavism and socialism. Each state in the federation had equal rights and the promotion of nationalism was banned. After Tito’s death, however, Yugoslavia became increasingly Serb dominated. Beginning in 1990, its constituent republics seceded.
In the following wars Kosovo was the last dispute to be settled. Slobidan Milosevic, who rose to power on a Serb nationalist platform, installed a Serb administration and clamped down on Albanian Kosovar rights. In 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army took up arms. Milosevic responded with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, massacring 10,000 Albanians and expelling a million others. The KLA committed war crimes too, but firepower was on the Serbian side. It was only after NATO aircraft bombed Serb targets into submission that Milosevic relented. Peace was ratified in 1998 and Kosovo gained independence a decade later.
Bill Clinton Boulevard, Pristina. The US President is a hero in Kosovo for guaranteeing independence from Serbia in 1998
Ten years on and Kosovo is the second poorest nation in Europe after Moldova. Mistrust between Serbs and Albanians remain high, most of the former still yearning for reunification with Serbia. Unemployment stands at 57% and the country struggles to attract foreign investment. Kosovo’s diplomatic status does not help either. Foreign travel is virtually impossible: even the Prime Minister was recently denied visas to Britain and the USA.
Despite this, there are glimmers of a brighter future. Kosovo is debt free and in the capital of Pristina a cultural scene is booming. Power outages, which were common in the early days of independence, are now rare. In a continent plagued by low birth-rates, Kosovo’s young population just might be its saving grace.
Sources: BBC, CIA Factbooks, Kosovo Info, New York Times
- New York Times: Kosovo Independence Anniversary: An article by Andrew Testa, who reported in Kosovo in the 1990s. His photographs are brilliant.