Why Kosovo Still Matters

How the U.S. and Europe can help secure the gains the fledgeling state has made in its five years of independence.

liam kosovo banner.jpg
People in a car wave the Kosovo flag as they pass a sign decorated with the flags of the 98 countries that have recognized Kosovo's independence, in Pristina, on February 17, 2013. (Hazir Reka/Reuters)

"The Republic of Kosovo is an irrefutable reality," the nascent country's President Atifete Jahjaga declared on Sunday, the fifth anniversary of the Balkan nation's independence from Serbia. "We, the people of Kosovo, have begun a new chapter in our history, the chapter of peace, understanding, cooperation and mutual respect."

As noteworthy as this universal and fraternal message is the person who delivered it. Atifete Jahjaga -- the former Deputy General Director of the Police of Kosovo -- is the country's first female President, elected by the Parliament in April 2011 as a consensus candidate supported by the center-left Democratic Party, center-right Democratic League, and centrist New Kosovo Alliance. President Jahjaga is Western-educated, a speaker of three languages (including Serbian), and a Muslim with a secular appearance. Politically, she is very much pro-American and in favor of European Union membership.

President Jahjaga is wholly representative of the sort of nation the Kosovar resistance movement stood for and international involvement has helped to foster. NATO military intervention helped to secure Kosovo, and a continued international presence in the form of KFOR, UNMIK, and EULEX has aided the creation of a secular, pluralistic, democratic, and unabashedly pro-Western constitutional republic with a majority Muslim population.

This might not seem like much, but consider the situation in the months after the liberation of Kosovo from Serbian president Slobodan Milošević's grasp. The rape and ethnic cleansing of Kosovo had meant the deaths of several thousand Kosovar Albanians, as well as the organized and systematic rape of women, the forced deportation or displacement of over 90 percent of Kosovars, and the physical destruction of property, including the flattening of entire villages. The sole of aim of Milošević's campaign was to rid Kosovo entire of its Albanian identity, secure the territory as part of Greater Serbia, and, as a consequence, re-secure his bloody and absolute control of his country.

Kosovo was left without proper institutions of governance and administration. In the winter of 1999, swathes of Kosovo were essentially lawless, with the Albanian mafia filling the void in many towns. Timothy Garton Ash reported at the time that young women were afraid to go out at night for fear of being kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Murders, including execution-style inter-ethnic revenge killings were up, as was drug abuse -- KFOR had resorted to detention centers in order to retain the violent and the recidivist.

Indeed, Kosovo and its people are still attempting to repair, rebuild, and resolve these issues. The River Ibar, which runs through Mitrovica, remains a wound unhealed, a representation of the division between Kosovars to the south of the river who seek independence and Serbs in the north who wish for Kosovo rejoin the mother country. While relations between Pristina and smaller Serb communities have improved, Mitrovica's Serbs have their own Assembly and a Civil Protection Force funded by Belgrade. They have also erected barricades to obstruct KFOR and the police's access to their turf.

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Liam Hoare, a freelance writer specializing in foreign affairs, has written for The Forward and The Jewish Chronicle.

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