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.

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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.

Kosovo will be stunted until this ethnic division is resolved, and it will never fully flourish if it does not overcome fundamental economic and political deficiencies. Although the International Civilian Office voted to conclude "supervised independence" last year, Kosovo's young institutions have struggled to get a handle on corruption and the organized crime racket. Indeed, its leaders have previously been implicated in both, with a report from the Council of Europe in December 2010 alleging that officials up to and including Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi were involved in the trafficking of human organs.

An inadequate legal system which is open to political influences has hindered both democratic and economic progress. The legal code -- complex by virtue of the incorporation of edicts of the former Yugoslavia, UNMIK Regulations, and the Kosovo Assembly -- as well as multiple ownership claims on properties are "obstacles to foreign direct investment," the Heritage Foundation asserts. Kosovo is quite open to foreign investment, but failure to tackle corruption, crime and graft has negatively impacted the regular economy while at once encouraging the growth of the black market.

The consequence of this is that unemployment remains stubbornly and astonishing high at 45 percent, while the GDP per capita is the lowest in Europe outside of the former Soviet Union. Kosovo has an extremely youthful population -- half of its citizenry is under 25 -- but in order to absorb the number of young people wishing to enter the job market, Radio Free Europe reports that the economy must grow at 8 percent every year. The World Bank, however, estimates GDP grew only 5 percent in 2011, and that last year growth might have fallen to around 4 percent.

For all Kosovo's triumphs there have been disappointments and impediments to fuller progress. All the more reason that the U.S. and Europe's special relationship with Kosovo be retained and strengthened: Neither USAID to Kosovo nor the presence of American troops within KFOR must be sacrificed during upcoming American budget negotiations, while EULEX's mission to improve the lackluster judiciary has to be renewed.

The United States and Europe must also the encourage bilateral negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, which resumed Tuesday. After all, none of the country's economic or political problems can ever be fully resolved until the existential question is answered, Kosovo's independence is recognized, and its borders deemed sovereign. If the international community, including the United States, forgets Kosovo and allows its tentative secular and pluralistic gains to be made null on account of our neglect, it might be that we won't know just how good we had it until those gains evaporate.