Kosovo is “newborn,” proclaims a sign in the capital, reflecting the country’s embrace of its 2008 independence and the energy that accompanies youth. One observer describes Kosovo as “upbeat and bright-eyed,” enjoying statehood for the first time. Although shared ethnic and family ties connect the country to Albania—93 percent of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians, according to the 2011 census[i]—most people are firm in their identity as Kosovars. However, a preponderance of Albanian flags and some nationalist movements suggest that there is an undercurrent of those who wish to become part of a greater Albania.
Kosovo is no longer the world’s newest nation, but it is yet to achieve certain privileges of statehood, such as admission to the UN. (In contrast, South Sudan was admitted to the UN in 2011, the same year it achieved independence.) Although this holdup is due to politics—China and Russia, both members of the Security Council, will not vote in favor of admission—it demonstrates the precarious existence of this new country. Serbia, from which Kosovo broke off, also opposes its independence. Currently, Kosovars enjoy visa-free travel to only a handful of countries, underscoring the country’s isolation.[ii] An EU proposal to allow Kosovars visa-free travel to the Schengen Zone stalled after a split vote in September 2016. They are the only country in the region that does not enjoy the benefits of a visa-liberalization program.
Kosovo is slowly gaining recognition of its sovereignty from international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Council of Europe Development Bank, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the International Olympic Committee. However, it has not yet received recognition from the United Nations, the five EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo (some because of their own territorial issues), and Serbia.[iii] Without those acknowledgements, Kosovo is unable to function as an independent entity in the international system.
Many members of the Serbian minority live in communities that are separated by a KFOR buffer zone and, says one young Serb, “As of right now, young Serbs cannot plan their lives in Kosovo, as they see their future in Belgrade.” At the same time, the government is working on erasing displays of nationalism. The national anthem has no words in order to prevent offending anyone. A “peace park” was constructed in the divided city of Mitrovica although, according to one activist from the city, “These types of projects are not feeding anyone. We need schools, not parks.” The park, constructed by Serbs, served in effect as a continued barrier in the city. The Serbian enclaves receive money from both Kosovo and Serbia, and have political and economic ties to Belgrade in addition to Pristina.
Kosovo’s education system faces major challenges. Kosovo has the lowest rate of preschool enrollment in the Western Balkan region.[iv] A 2015 report by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—a widely recognized global report card on education—ranked Kosovo last in Europe and in the bottom three of the 72 countries surveyed.[v] Although enrollment has increased in universities, the corresponding infrastructure—hiring qualified professors, for example—and program development has lagged. “Education is treated with the seriousness of ordering coffee at Starbucks,” laments one Pristina-based entrepreneur.
“Seventeen years after the intervention,” says one politician, “Kosovo has not yet matured as a democracy. Our legal system has good laws, but they are not being implemented.” While Kosovo has its own judiciary that is monitored by the EU, nearly everyone we spoke with stressed that, in effect, Kosovo’s judicial system is a failed project. Corruption is pervasive and the judiciary lags international norms, with independence from the executive and legislative branches not fully established.
Economic decentralization has created issues as well. Coal and mineral-rich Kosovo has, like the other Balkan countries, yet to establish a fully operational market-based system. The Trepca mine, which was one of the region’s biggest economic engines during the socialist era, is mired in an ownership dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. The mine is barely operating and costs money to maintain, yet is treated as a national prize rather than as a potential source of jobs and income if effectively privatized. The government still plays an outsized role in employment and the economy, allowing the elite to control the elections though interference in and ownership of the media. The country is heavily reliant on aid and remittances—16.7 percent of Kosovo’s GDP is sent from abroad, placing the country among the most remittance-dependent in the world[vi].
A recent study cited Kosovo as having the highest number of recruits for the self-declared Islamic State (IS) per capita of any European country, which drew attention to the issue of religion. The government fiercely advocates for putting this figure in perspective, as more than 95 percent of Kosovo’s population is Muslim, which makes for a misleading comparison with other countries in Europe.[vii] In fact, the country is extremely secular. The largest religious building is not a mosque but the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Theresa in Pristina and many people frequent bars and restaurants throughout the country, unconcerned with any religious strictures.
[i] Kosovo’s 2011 demographics; Kosovo Human Development Report 2014. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.ks.undp.org/content/kosovo/en/home/library/human_development/kosovo-human-development-report-2014.html
[iii] Kosovo’s international recognition; Krasniqi, G. (2016, December 22). Rising up in the world: Kosovo’s quest for international recognition. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://prishtinainsight.com/rising-up-world-kosovo-quest-international-recognition-mag/
[iv] In 2014 Kosovo has lowest pre-school enrollment at 6.2 percent, Croatia at 61 percent, BiH at 15 percent, and Serbia at 59 percent; Gross enrolment ratio, pre-primary, both sexes (%). (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRE.ENRR
Agencija za Statistiku Kosova. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://ask.rks-gov.net/sr/agencia-za-statistike-kosova/socijalne/obrazovanje
[vi] Kosovo remittances; Kosovo Human Development Report 2014. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.ks.undp.org/content/kosovo/en/home/library/human_development/kosovo-human-development-report-2014.html
[vii] Kosovo demographics; Kosovo Demographics Profile 2016. Retrieved from http://www.indexmundi.com/kosovo/demographics_profile.html