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Kosovo rings in fifth Independence Day with tempered enthusiasm

Marie Dhumieres

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Saturday night seemed to capture something of the mood here on the eve of official celebrations to mark this fledgling country’s fifth independence day.

Despite nearly universal gratitude for Kosovo’s freedom from Serbia, the capital’s almost empty streets were even quieter than usual.

The truth is that many Kosovars don’t have much to celebrate: With unemployment around 50 percent and some 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line, crippling corruption and an economy sustained by international aid, Europe’s youngest country still faces huge obstacles to becoming a secure, self-sufficient state.

Kosovo’s independence is still challenged by minority Serbs and rejected by half the world, which has prevented it from joining the UN and other international organizations.

But not everything appears bleak. Serbia’s new government has taken strides to normalize relations with its former province, which may eventually help pave the way for both countries to join the European Union.

Speaking before a military parade on Sunday, however, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former rebel leader, acknowledged the goal of EU membership was still distant.

"The Republic of Kosovo is on the right path to the European Union,” he said, “but we still need to work and transform Kosovo into a developed European state."

The province unilaterally declared independence after a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 forced Serbia to abandon Kosovo. Backed by full support from the United States and most of the EU, many in Kosovo believed they would soon gain widespread international recognition and UN membership.

A small country whose international reputation was severely tarnished by war and atrocities committed under strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia appeared to have few chances of blocking it.

But Russia and China — both permanent members of the UN Security Council that saw western support for Kosovo as meddling in Serbia’s internal affairs — remained firm in their rejection of Kosovo’s independence, and the promised wave of recognitions never came.

While Kosovo relied on its benefactors to advocate its cause — the United States lobbying in South America, and Turkey in the Middle East and Asia — Serbia began its own efforts under the lead of its young Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, now president of the UN General Assembly.

He managed to win the support of smaller countries eager to push back against America’s outsized international voice. Despite Kosovo’s identity as a Muslim country, he also successfully targeted members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, of which only 32 of 57 countries recognized Kosovo.

Kosovo and its allies meanwhile underestimated the number of countries battling separatist movements of their own that couldn’t afford to send the “wrong message.” For governments in Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Iran and elsewhere, recognizing Kosovo’s unilateral independence was out of the question.

More frustrating for Kosovo’s European ambitions, five EU countries — Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia — also refuse to recognize the former province’s independence for similar reasons, a paradox because Kosovo is the world’s foremost recipient of EU assistance per capita.

Kosovo’s messy lobbying was perhaps best symbolized by the flight of a Kosovar pilot who decided to win support for his country by touring the world. The Texas resident ended up crash-landing in Sudan before spending months in an Eritrean jail accused of being an American spy.

Critics also say the government’s efforts have been less than transparent. In 2009, government officials in the Maldives were accused of accepting a $2 million bribe from Kosovo businessman and former president, Behgjet Pacolli, in exchange for recognizing Pristina.

And some countries Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry lists as having recognized the new state, including Uganda and Nigeria, say they don’t.

While US and EU backing has enabled smoother integration into some international bodies — Kosovo has joined the World Bank and the IMF, whose voting systems give more weight to bigger donors — it remains technically equal to the pariah Turkish Republic of northern Cyprus when it comes to status under international law.

Restrictions on travel abroad are more onerous than for residents of Afghanistan, whose citizens can enter more than 20 countries visa-free. Kosovars are allowed only into five: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey and the Maldives.

The government has started implementing EU-mandated conditions for visa-free travel within the union’s so-called Schengen area, but the issue remains extremely sensitive. Last week, the EU published a blistering status report criticizing Kosovo's failure to fight organized crime and corruption.

Kosovo is also left out of most international sports competitions. Athletes who wanted to take part in the London 2012 Olympics competed for neighboring Albania, while the International Football Federation, FIFA, doesn’t recognize Kosovo. Anti-Kosovo demonstrators in Serbia often wave FIFA flags, a cheeky claim the association is on their side.

But there’s been movement in what’s perhaps Kosovo’s most intractable-seeming obstacle: relations with Serbia. Last year’s election of nationalist president, Tomislav Nikolic, a former Milosevic ally, prompted predictions Belgrade would withdraw from EU-sponsored negotiations with Pristina.

In fact, Nikolic and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic have done more to normalize relations with Kosovo than the previous government of the ostensibly pro-western Boris Tadic.

In a largely symbolic but historic step earlier this month, Nikolic recently became the first Serbian president to meet his Kosovan counterpart Atifete Jahjaga.

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The EU dialogue’s success has been limited, however. Although Serbian enclaves in Kosovo’s south are slowly integrating and participating in local elections, northern Kosovo’s Serbs refuse to recognize Pristina’s authority and advocate rejoining Serbia.

Although US President Barack Obama praised the country’s progress when he congratulated Kosovo on Sunday, most Kosovars understand the magnitude of the task ahead.

“The government has taken only symbolic actions during these last five years,” Albin Kurti, leader of Kosovo’s Vetevendosje (self-determination) movement, said. “Instead of celebrating independence, we celebrate its proclamation, because we have much more proclamation than independence.”