Pristina, Kosovo – As the Pristina-born British singer and actress Rita Ora entertained thousands of Kosovars as part of independence day celebrations, a poster on a fence surrounding Kosovo’s main government building pictured hundreds of young men unseen in nearly 20 years, believed to have been abducted by Serb security forces.
Mothers of those who went missing during Kosovo’s war for independence had pinned the poster up – a fitting metaphor for the country’s evolving place in the world on the tenth anniversary of its independence – scrubbing up, hungry for acceptance in the West, but still plagued by the legacy of conflict and ethnic division.
Kosovo’s war for independence from Serbia threatened to become as protracted and bloody as the one in Bosnia before NATO sided with the Kosovo Albanian independence fighters and launched a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.
Massacres such as Recak, where Serb security forces killed 45 ethnic Albanians, prompted that decision. Nonetheless, Kosovo’s western allies acknowledge that the Kosovo Liberation Army too was responsible for atrocities.
The US and European Union insist Pristina establish a war crimes court: the Specialist Chambers.
Today, Kosovo has the highest economic growth rate in the Balkan region, predicted to reach 4.8 percent this year, and has successfully adopted the Euro. It has huge reserves of precious minerals including lead, zinc, aluminium, gold and silver, and potential for tourism in the picturesque landscapes of the west of the country.
Youth unemployment is a persistent problem, running at nearly 60 percent in a country where under-25s make up half the population.
More than 100 countries recognise Kosovo; Serbia is not among them. Russia and China also oppose Kosovo’s full membership of the United Nations.
We discussed these issues and more with influential figures in Kosovo.
“Every European nation loses money… keeping Serbia and Kosovo undefined. This is damaging for every European nation, because if they keep one of their regions weak, they keep themselves weak. We have lost a lot of time, two decades since the war, and this is in Europe. All those investments; military, political, financial, all those engagements. It is very irrational to keep it still as unfinished business.”
“We have arrived really far in our reconciliation, my deputy prime minister is a Serb from southern Kosovo, two ministers are from (Serb-dominated) north Kosovo. I’m working with every mayor … and talking to all the MPs from the north.”
“It worries us, but it’s also our potential. The young population has an entrepreneurial spirit, and they’re really prepared to face what the market economy can offer them. Our job is to present an offer, a business offer, for every citizen of our country, for every entrepreneur in our country but also for foreign investors. This starts with rule of law and fighting corruption.”
“For a 10-year-old country, it’s not doing badly at all. It’s got a modern constitution, modern European laws, it’s got the highest economic growth rate in the region, one of the highest in Europe.
What’s going to happen in the future depends a lot on Kosovo’s leaders. They have to make a bigger focus on things like rule of law, on dealing with the unemployment rate and on having better relationships with their neighbouring countries; Serbia, Montenegro.
The rule of law is the defining challenge for Kosovo and it’s going to determine the success of the country moving forward.
For a 10-year-old country, it's not doing badly at all. It's got a modern constitution, modern European laws, it's got the highest economic growth rate in the region, one of the highest in Europe.
The Specialist Chambers is an element of the rule of law, it’s important to provide justice for the victims, of all ethnicities by the way, from the Kosovo liberation struggle around 1999.
No one is calling into question, from the United States at least, that liberation struggle. But it’s impossible to eliminate the fact that some war crimes were committed, and those war crimes need to be dealt with.
[The economy] is something that I wish people took more seriously. Remember Kosovo was always the poorest part of Yugoslavia, so it’s had the furthest to come. But really the government needs to focus on creating an investment-friendly environment.”
(Note: As a KLA veteran, Veseli opposed the Specialist Chambers. However, on the eve of independence day celebrations, he dropped his attempts to undermine the court, saying building faith in the country was more important than individual beliefs.)
“We will respect [the Specialist Chambers]. We will go through that process because it is in the interests of Kosovo to remove any kind of suspicions around our liberty.
We are the only country in the former Yugoslavia to create this kind of Specialist Chambers. Many people were unhappy because there are so many mass graves here in Kosovo which were created by the Serbian aggressor and no-one was held responsible for that.
Here in the Balkans, all the time we have this kind of unhappiness. ‘Why is that happening just to us?’ But at the same time, we’re very reasonable about this, we are very proud of our fight.”
(Note: Hajrizi was six when his brother was killed in the Recak massacre. He has since obtained a masters degree in history, but is unemployed. Speaking at the site where his brother was killed, he says the government has neglected the village since the war.)
“It’s very hard to think about what happened. He was 18 years old and was killed here. My father hasn’t come to this place since 1999. We have land just next to here where we used to cut wood for heat during the winter, but he has never come back because of what happened to his son.
If we consider Recak’s contribution to the Kosovo state, I think the government hasn’t paid off that sacrifice. We have many young people who obtain university degrees, but they’re unemployed.
Economic development has been stifled. In our village, we have built everything by ourselves. In every single house of the village, there is a person who has migrated and provides for his family … I think we’ve remained sidelined by the government in Pristina.”
Nysrete Kumnova, an Albanian who is part of the Mother’s Call from Gjakova collective, on searching for loved ones…
“We are happy about Kosovo’s independence, but we will only be able to celebrate it when we know where our loved ones are buried.”
Silvana Marinkovic, a Serb whose husband was kidnapped by the Kosovo Liberation Army, on coping…
“For our entire family, the most important thing is to find out the truth. The hardest thing is to live in uncertainty. We’ve lived with it for almost 20 years.
“If they wanted to do something about this, they could have done it a long time ago. Earlier, the police and UN had testimonies that were still fresh, but they wanted to hide the truth. That’s why we don’t trust this special court.”