From The Economist print edition
“Independent” Kosovo is in limbo, but ties with Serbia are quietly improving
A BLUE flag emblazoned with a golden map of Kosovo and six white stars flutters over the Merdare border crossing. Signs welcome visitors to the independent “Republic of Kosovo”—but that is not how much of the world sees it.
Ever since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17th, after nine years of custodianship by the United Nations, it has struggled to gain international acceptance. America and 22 of 27 European Union members have recognised it, along with 26 other states. But Russia, China and most of the UN’s 192 members have shunned it. This leaves Kosovo in limbo, its legitimacy still questioned. Some 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians, but several Serbian-dominated enclaves are still beyond the control of Kosovo’s government.
The UN General Assembly this week approved a Serbian motion asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on the legality of Kosovo’s independence. The court could take one or two years to issue a non-binding ruling, but the move could dim Kosovo’s hopes of gaining wider acceptance. Its leaders took time to wake up to the threat. “They are still in the mindset of the EU and the Americans being strong and who cares about the rest?” says Ilir Deda of KIPRED, a think-tank in Pristina.
More worrying is that the EU’s police and justice mission for Kosovo, called EULEX, has been so slow to arrive. It was supposed to be up and running four months ago, but has been hobbled by both politics and logistics. Only 350 of the 1,900 international policemen, judges and other personnel due to be deployed across the country have arrived so far. And they are unable to operate in the Serbian north of Kosovo. The absence of any new UN Security Council resolutions on Kosovo’s status has left the country with a plethora of international missions, none of which knows who is supposed to do what. One Kosovar official despairs of the “organised anarchy” of the international presence.
In the absence of strong international supervision, standards of governance in Kosovo are slipping. Opposition leaders are being bought off and boards of state companies packed with cronies. A briefing paper for Pieter Feith, the EU’s representative in Kosovo, complains that recent appointees “have direct political affiliations and fail to meet minimum professional qualifications requirements”.
The overall picture is not wholly negative, however. A new school seems to open every week. Despite the estrangement of Serbs and Albanians, diplomacy is proceeding. For the first time, Kosovo Albanian ministers and top Serbian officials are talking directly, with no foreign mediators, to solve practical problems. This began in July when the new Serbian government of President Boris Tadic put new people in the ministry dealing with Kosovo. The main officials are now Kosovar Serbs who have good relations with their counterparts. Serbia’s new minister in charge served in the pre-independence government of Kosovo led by Bajram Rexhepi. Another top official, Oliver Ivanovic, speaks fluent Albanian and was once a deputy in Kosovo’s Albanian-dominated parliament.
Mr Rexhepi, now mayor of the Albanian half of the divided city of Mitrovica, says that although such contacts may not on their own be enough to normalise Kosovo’s status and its relationship with Serbia, they can make a big difference. Like his Serbian counterparts he says he cannot hold meetings or discussions officially, but that unofficial contacts continue. “In this way you can solve problems,” he says, “but without too much publicity.”