Much to celebrate: Kosovo at 15

As Kosovo celebrates 15 years of independence, a deal that could finally normalise relations with neighbour Serbia is closer than ever. Serb nationalists will do all they can to ensure it fails, however. 

It’s the most pro-European Union and pro-NATO country in Europe, and yet it is a member of neither. Indeed, its citizens are the only Europeans who still require visas to travel elsewhere on the continent. 

Nevertheless, Kosovo will celebrate the 15th anniversary of its independence on February 17 with renewed hope that its status, and future, might soon be resolved once and for all.

Forged in war, the country, which formally applied for EU membership in December, has much to pat itself on the back for. Economic growth in the past decade has  outperformed its neighbours, and will remain strong over the next few years. It holds fair elections, in which, “fundamental freedoms are respected, and voters offered a real choice”, while its media are freer than elsewhere in the Western Balkans.

Just a decade and a half since independence, these are not mere bagatelles, not least when we consider how Kosovo came to be. 

Birth of a nation 

Following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbia responded to separatist pressure from within Kosovo by launching a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing on the territory’s Albanian population, a campaign which was only ended by NATO military intervention in the spring and early summer of 1999. 

For the following decade Kosovo was administered by the UN while unsuccessful attempts were made to reconcile the two sides. Following Serbia’s rejection of a 2007 proposal that would have granted Kosovo self-rule but stopped short of full independence, Kosovo – with US backing – unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008.  

Today, Kosovo’s independence is recognised by around 110 UN members. Serbia, along with its ally Russia, has never recognised the republic, nor have five EU members: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Spain. 

Their reasons have nothing to do with Kosovo itself, nor sympathy for Serbia, and everything to do with internal politics: four fear that recognition of Kosovo would encourage separatist movements (real or imagined) at home, while Greece abstains in support of Cyprus. 

As such, the stance of the five EU refuseniks is unlikely to change without a formal deal between Belgrade and Prishtina – something which might currently be closer than ever. 

A plan Serb nationalists hate 

The day before Kosovo celebrated 15 years of independence, hardline Serb nationalists and pro-Russia activists rallied in downtown Belgrade, threatening riots if Serbia accepts a Western-backed plan aimed at mending ties with Kosovo. 

That plan is perhaps the most likely of the many proposals that have attempted, and failed, to resolve the Serbia-Kosovo dispute over the past 15 years. It closely follows the framework of the 1972 Basic Treaty, which allowed East and West Germany to de facto recognise each other, establish “permanent missions” to each other in place of official embassies, and create a path for both to join the UN.   

It calls for the two countries to establish “normal, good, neighbourly relations with each other based on equal rights” and permanent missions to the other. Both countries would recognise that they will not “represent the other in the international sphere nor act on its behalf”, and Serbia would cease efforts to block Kosovo from joining international organisations, including the UN. 

Last month, envoys from the EU, France, Germany, Italy, and US all met with Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić to discuss the plan. Vučić has claimed that he was told failure to accept it would be the end of Serbia’s European integration – something he is unwilling the sacrifice. 

“Serbia must remain on its EU path, because we would be lost without it, economically and politically. If we were to be alone and isolated, that is not something I would accept as a president,” he said. 

Plenty of Serb nationalists would disagree – hanging on to Kosovo is a prize worth more than EU membership.  

Damjan Knežević, whose nationalist People’s Patrol group allegedly has links to Russia’s Wagner mercenary army, and which organised this week’s protests in Belgrade, has warned Vučić that it would “remove” him should Serbia allow Kosovo to join the UN. 

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Kosovo’s objections 

The latest normalisation plan also has opponents in Kosovo, led by the prime minister, Albin Kurti, who objects to the creation of an Association of Serb Municipalities in northern Kosovo, an area of the country populated almost entirely by Serbs. 

Kurti fears that the association would solidify existing parallel structures in the region, through which Serbs live beyond the reach of the Prishtina authorities. An attempt last year to force Kosovo’s Serbs to exchange their Belgrade-issued ID cards and vehicle license plates for Kosovan equivalents brought the two countries closer to war than at any time since Kosovo declared independence. 

Nevertheless, Kurti – while continuing to insist that the association must be in accordance with the constitution and laws of Kosovo, and that it cannot have executive powers – earlier this month gave the clearest hint yet that he would be ready to accept the deal currently on the table. 

That Vučić – who famously admitted in 2019 that Serbia had “lost” Kosovo – may be ready to do the same will encourage Kosovans celebrating 15 years of independence. But they know that the Serb president cannot take the decision alone. Any deal will require a referendum in Serbia – and the likes of Knežević will do all they can to ensure it fails.

Photo: The Newborn Monument in Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina. It was unveiled on February 17, 2008, the day that Kosovo formally declared its independence from Serbia.

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