Kosovo: A new state challenged by a legacy of war

Ethnic conflict and a slow economy trouble Kosovar politics and business

Ethnic conflict and a slow economy trouble Kosovar politics and business

ANKARA – Kosovo faces the many challenges of a new country, and a very small one at that.

"From an economic point of view," Wiktor Hebda, a professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, wrote in July, Pristina could be the capital of any developing country in Africa."

The EU would like it as a member. But recent events seem to show that Hebda's assessment is no exaggeration. 

Pristina has been rocked since Saturday -- and again on Monday -- by riots and demonstrations. And while the protests were ignited by recent events – a racist remark by a minister and a failed effort at privatizing a mine – the underlying causes run deeper, and include economic frustration and ethnic division.

From the start, the project to create a country from a small Serbian province posed serious challenges. Kosovo is only the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, which ranks 49th in size among America's 50 states. Aside from minerals, it has few natural resources.

While the economy has grown steadily since 2009, Kosovo remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a per-capita gross domestic product of about €3,000 and about one-third of the population living below the poverty line.

Much is hoped for from the most recent election; in December, a coalition government was formed that could help take Kosovo into the European Union. And the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said recently there has been significant progress in terms of reform and the normalization of relations with Serbia.

"In this regard, the new government in Kosovo will need to maintain the commitment to regional cooperation and an active and constructive engagement in the normalization process with Serbia," said the commission's report, published in October.

The new government is a coalition of the two main parties. Isa Mustafa of the LDK, or Democratic League of Kosovo, is prime minister. His predecessor, Hashim Thaci, of the PDK , of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, serves as his deputy and foreign minister.

Mustafa was in charge of the Communist Party of Kosovo in the 1990s -- and he is the first prime minister not to have been associated with pro-independence insurgents. Thaci, on the other hand, was a senior member of the Kosovo Liberation Army. 

“The need for structural economic reforms addressing the high level of unemployment is becoming urgent," the European Union delegation wrote in a report in October. "Important reforms such as electoral reform and public administration reforms need to be undertaken as a priority and the protection of minorities addressed.” 

Ethnic conflict in Kosovo remains: The Muslim majority cannot forget the war crimes committed by Serbian forces in the conflict that began in 1999.

With the help of NATO, Kosovo ultimately broke away from Serbia. It declared independence in 2008, a declaration recognized by numerous other countries -- but not by Serbia, nor by much of the ethnic Serb minority in Kosovo itself.

The importance of ethnic issues in the country’s political life has been highlighted recently.

The protests that began over the weekend were sparked by Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aleksandar Jablanovic, one of three ethnic Serbs in the cabinet, calling a group of ethnic Muslim Albanians “savages” for trying to prevent Serb pilgrims from visiting a monastery in western Kosovo on Orthodox Christmas, according to media reports.

The ethnic Albanians claimed the Serb pilgrims included war criminals. 

Jablanovic has since apologized for the remark, but protestors have continued to demand his resignation. Kosovar Albanians were also enraged by Serbian pressure that caused a mine privatization project to be delayed.

The challenge for Kosovo is to become an ethnically integrated, economically viable region. 

"The new government and the Assembly will need to re-energize Kosovo’s reform agenda," the European Commission report said. "Both institutions need to build on the existing political consensus in Kosovo on EU integration. Kosovo’s government has demonstrated its capacity to achieve this."

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