Kosovo has been set free. The 90-plus states that recognize it lifted the Balkan state’s unique form of “supervised” independence on Monday, making it a fully sovereign entity.
The new country has accomplished much since declaring independence from Serbia in February 2008, but, despite this week’s welcome and deserved step, this is no time for its partners to walk away thinking the job is done.
Kosovo’s progress towards peace and democracy was not a guaranteed outcome four years ago, even for the countries that recognized it quickly, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Turkey. There were fears that hardliners from Serbia would try to force Kosovo back into their country, from which it split de facto after a war with Belgrade in 1999. For several days, Serbian nationalists rallied in Belgrade against independence, attacking foreign embassies and businesses, causing at least one death. The then-Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica proclaimed: “As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia. Kosovo belongs to the Serbian people.”
But Kosovo has since shown that, though it has a clear ethnic Albanian majority, it can be a country for all its people: Serbs, as well as Turks, Roma and others. In 2008, Kosovo accepted the Comprehensive Settlement Proposal brokered by former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, even though Belgrade refused to, and ever since, “the Ahtisaari plan” has formed the blueprint for Kosovo’s development. In over 60 pages it provided recommendations to Pristina on how to address human rights, decentralization, religious and cultural heritage, economic and property issues, security and justice and the international presence. The international community was invited to supervise, monitor and have all necessary powers to ensure the plan’s effective and efficient implementation.
Ultimately, Kosovo took most of the burden of incorporating the plan into its new constitution, passing laws, and taking concrete steps, particularly on minority rights. State-level elections, whose results were recognized by all participating parties, were held in 2010 and a coalition government, including a Serb party, has held together since. It was helped along the way by the European Union, United States and Turkey, especially. The European Union mission, EULEX, helped strengthen the rule of law, especially the functioning of the police and the courts. Turkey provided much political and economic support, and tried to build confidence with Belgrade to encourage Serbian leaders to see Kosovo independence as less threatening than they did in 2008. In July, Kosovo’s international supporters in the International Steering Board, where Turkey plays an active role, determined that the government had implemented Ahtisaari’s terms and could take the necessary measures to end supervision in September.
Kosovo demonstrates how even after a short but vicious war, a managed transition to independence is possible. It received a big boost in July 2010 when the International Court of Justice issued the opinion that its declaration of independence was not against international law. But the big challenges that remain show how difficult it is to establish the bases of a democratic multi-ethnic state. Most importantly, it is not recognized by Serbia, which retains an important presence in Kosovo’s Serb majority municipalities north of the Ibar River, where Pristina institutions are not accepted by local Serbs and cannot operate. Kosovo does not have full control over its northern border. It is not allowed to join many international organizations, to have its own phone code, or even to participate in the Olympics. Its development will be stunted unless these challenges can be overcome.
After much pushing and prodding, Kosovo and Serbia sat down to an EU-mediated technical dialogue to make agreements on how to share cadastral records, recognize diplomas, ensure that Kosovo could participate in regional forums and manage their shared border. While the agreements exist on paper, few steps have been taken to implement them. The political will, especially in Belgrade, is not there. And the election this spring in Serbia of a more nationalist government, which has promoted the partition of Kosovo in the past, is likely to make further agreements more difficult.
After the festivities and congratulatory speeches, the Kosovo government will need to continue the hard work of honoring the Ahtisaari plan. It should do more to encourage its Serb citizens to feel like full members of society and political life. The return of displaced Serbs is one area where Kosovo has failed miserably and done much worse than its neighbor Bosnia and Herzegovina. These Serbs require more help from the government to stop the rash of violent incidents that have targeted them in the past months. They deserve better access to official services in their native language and their own fully independent TV channel. A mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure that their numbers in parliament are not cut. Kosovo’s biggest challenge -- to gradually engage with its Serb citizens living in the north to normalize its presence there, in cooperation with Belgrade -- is still ahead of it.
Managing the Serbia-Kosovo relationship, and the protection of Serb rights in Kosovo and minorities in Serbia, is key to maintaining stability in the Western Balkans. Tensions can still quickly boil over, as they did in July 2011, when an officer was killed during a Kosovo police operation in northern Kosovo, or if murders, like the one of two elderly Serbs in July 2012, are repeated. Kosovo should stay the course but so should its international supporters. Kosovo still needs extensive monitoring and support, especially from the European Union, in which it seeks eventual membership, and from its strongest regional ally, Turkey. There can be much congratulatory back-slapping now, but it’s still too early to say that the Kosovo conflict is finally resolved.
*Sabine Freizer is the Europe program director for the International Crisis Group.