Kosovo’s Independence – Not a Pretty Sight
May 15, 2009

On February 18th 2008, the conflict-ridden Serbian province of Kosovo, the land that had galvanized the global community into aggressive humanitarian action in 1999, declared unilateral independence from Serbia. For a brief moment, nearly 10 years after they left, international cameras were once again focused on Kosovo. In a demonstration of the apparent success of global mobilization against ­genocide, the media would now broadcast celebrations and smiles. Images of streams of refugees, mass graves and NATO bombs were victoriously replaced with those of parades, packed bars and fireworks. Unfurling a new flag, signing a formal ­Declaration of Independence and realizing a generations-old ambition for independent status, Kosovo became the world’s youngest country.

Deliberately out of focus, however, was the reality behind the elaborate show being directed by the Kosovar government and the international community. The Declaration of Independence was announced unilaterally (undemocratically) without consultation with Serbia, and flying the in face of international border and sovereignty laws. The very document declaring Kosovo’s independence (legal or otherwise) was reportedly drafted almost entirely by the American Embassy in Kosovo, not the Kosovar government.

U.S. Embassy staff kindly wrote the Kosovar President’s Independence Day speech as well, even contributing an “aged” papyrus paper for Kosovo-Albanian officials to sign in front of international cameras. Absent from the signing ceremony, and indeed from the ensuing global reports, were Kosovo’s 10 Serbian Members of Assembly. Ignored or dismissed, the Albanian party went on without them. The Balkans’ newest and most successful multi-ethnic state was born.

Six months into its new nationhood, and for the second time in less than a year, I found myself in Kosovo. I had returned to finish a documentary film about pre- and post-independence Kosovo. In a land that had already been divided between three parties in 2007, Albanians, Serbs and the numerous internationals (UN, NATO, NGO’s, etc…), I was anxious to see what progress and tensions were manifesting themselves under Kosovo’s new flag.

I had watched news coverage of the Independence Day parties with an equal sense of excitement and apprehension – how a sovereign Kosovo would alleviate the very real ethnic tensions remained unclear. Certainly, images of Albanian celebrations seemed to disparage all notions of the Serb minority becoming further marginalized in this new multi-ethnic Balkan country. The Kosovo I had left behind in Fall 2007 had me feeling pessimistic about the feasibility of true inter-ethnic peace – where minorities would be fully and equally integrated.

Despite my own conflicted reactions to these accounts, I happily conceded that the Kosovo of 2007 was making measured progress between Serb and Albanian communities. While slow, it was tangible, even if only in the form of inter-ethnic summer camps and NGO projects for children.

Days into my 2008 trip, I was accompanied by a section of French Marines as I returned to film North-Mitrovica, the Serbian-dominated section opposite the city’s Albanian South. I was familiar with the city’s ethnic North/South division from 2007, but what became clear to me in the Mitrovica of 2008 was the utter hypocrisy of the West’s version of events in Kosovo. In the new Kosovo of 2008, the French “Kosovo Force” (KFOR) soldiers highlighted the stark contrasts of Kosovo’s many realities. The Marines showed off for my cameras how friendly they were with local Serbs mere moments after they’d given me a boastful tour of a sniper’s nest that allows them to target any household window on the Serb side of the city. Unfortunately, the French Marines exemplified the differences between the perceived – peaceful and reconciliatory – and the actual – tense and aggressive. In fact, their mere presence was a symbol of the times; in 2007 I had not required an armed NATO escort to film safely in Serbian Mitrovica.

The Tables Turn and the Cycle Continues
During my first trip to Kosovo in 2007, there was certainly ethnic tension. The Kosovar-Albanians were desperate to see the fulfillment of their national ambitions and to complete their break from Serbia and eventually the governance of the West, namely the United Nations’ Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Independence was the inevitable topic of conversation with any Albanian, be they young or old, rich or poor. However, it was especially among the poor and uneducated majority that independence was all-important and all-consuming. For the eight years since the war, both local and international politicians had been using Kosovo’s “status” as the benchmark that would see prosperity delivered to all.

Complete independence from Serbia was hammered into the Kosovar-Albanian consciousness as the single solution that would alleviate Kosovo’s economic woes. Water and electricity would run for more than 12 hours a day, and of course the UN would finally leave the area in Kosovar hands. The 60% unemployment rate would evaporate with the influx of foreign investment, which, the assumption was, shied away from Kosovo because of its lack of national status.

For Kosovo’s 90% Albanian population (largely uninformed on the complexities and realities of creating a nation-state, and still reeling from the horrific ethnic cleansing that had seen almost a million become refugees at Serbian gunpoint), independence was an easy carrot for politicians to dangle.

While “status” was dictated as a necessity (and overnight remedy) by the Kosovo Assembly, the politicians themselves did little to better the territory. They were able to deflect most criticism of their governance with the convenient excuse of national-ambiguity being the cause for Kosovo’s rise as Europe’s foremost gunrunning and human trafficking haven. In those eight post-war years, the Assembly became renowned for two things among Albanians who looked to them for nation deliverance; continually postponing status resolution (often blaming UNMIK as the scape­goat) and, above all else, gross corruption.

Of course the Kosovar-Albanian movement toward sovereignty (slow, mishandled and uninformed as it may have been) was in complete contrast with the Serbian position, one that insisted Kosovo was and always has been uniquely Serbian. For Serbians, Kosovo is the historic homeland. Their attachment to the disputed land runs far deeper than goods and economics, going beyond geographic pride into the lifeblood of their national consciousness.

Kosovo-Metohija (monastic estates), as Kosovo is traditionally known to Serbians, contains their oldest national symbols – Orthodox churches and monasteries dating back to the 12th century. These incredible structures stand in stark contrast to the Albanian mosques – not because of the obvious dichotomy between Christianity and Islam, but because only the Orthodox edifices require constant NATO guard in a post-war Kosovo.

Within the new Albanian-dominated Kosovo, Serbs now find themselves the underdogs, vying for rights and a voice. A decade ago, the roles were reversed and Albanians were the embattled minority within a larger Serbia.

Recent events have caused the Kosovar-Serbs find renewed inspiration in the medieval battlegrounds of “Kosovo-Polje,” interestingly the location of the Serbian Empire’s defeat in 1389 against the Ottomans. It is around this ancient defeat that modern Serbs rally and construct their current nationalist incarnation, that of the Balkan scapegoat and victim.

Ironically, it was during a speech at the Serbian Kosovo-Polje war monument that Slobodan Milosevic rose to power under the pretenses of protecting Serbs from Albanians within Yugoslav borders. Now, as a result of the Milosevic regime, the Serbs are more desperate and threatened than ever within their homeland. The tyrannical governance and wars of the 90s have left the Kosovo-Serbs stranded, maligned and clinging to an ever-shrinking base of land in Kosovo.

Slap it on and Hope it Sticks
The polarizing effects of Kosovo’s independence are staggering. My encounters with the North-Mitro Serbs a year (and a new country) later, would come to highlight the miscalculation and tragedy of Kosovo’s new independence. I began to witness repercussions of a national independence delivered not through democracy but thrust upon it by an international community desperate for results and symbolic progress. A decidedly irresponsible independence that left an entire portion of the population feeling isolated from their own neighbours and Serbia proper, betrayed by the UN and EU, and afraid of their own future. Albanians, meanwhile, have a symbolic independence at best and at worst a bitter reality of vast unemployment and limited lifestyle improvements.

The opportunity to create a truly multi-ethnic nation out of Kosovo was squandered in an effort to rush the process, and surely by outright institutional mistakes from the outset of the postwar period. For instance, NATO forcibly separated the communities of Mitrovica following the war, helping Serbian IDP’s evict Albanians in the North in an effort to create a haven for Serbs. Segregation was the result. It was an ad-hoc measure that foretold the manner in which Kosovo would see its status resolved. Ultimately, while good intentioned, the international missions in Kosovo became weighed down by pressures to see prosperity in a former-Yugoslavian conflict zone.

One might suggest that the current scale of violence is minimal, and certainly even the existing ethnic tensions and division would be unlikely to escalate into another full-blown military conflict. While certainly true, the international community must decide if it needs to hold itself to higher standards than simply delivering a “frozen conflict”. Social and economic progress is at a stand still in Kosovo since its UDI, despite the façade UNMIK, NATO, OSCE and EU have created on cohesion with the Kosovo government. Is a halt to violence in exchange for a vacuum of prosperity to become the great high water mark for international nation building operations? One must consider also that Kosovo was a relatively “easy fix” compared to engagements like Iraq and Afghanistan. Kosovo has a comparably small population of two million, borders with relatively friendly and stable neighbours, a small landmass and most importantly a majority population that wanted the UN and NATO there. Can even such a paltry victory as Kosovo’s frozen conflict be expected in harder fought regions?

In the independent Kosovo, one is witness to the aftermath of a poorly executed independence movement that saw the international community so desperate to make good on a botched mission that it opted to create a vestige of victory in lieu of admitting more work was needed. The ultimate decision included ramifications of an artificial ethnic prosperity be damned in favour of immediate results in the public’s eye. Reconciliation and progress was not impossible in Kosovo, regardless of the very real complications of reconciling two warring sides. The internationals simply had to resign themselves to staying as long as was needed, be it militarily or institutionally, in a truly neutral manner to foster local cooperation.

Ironically the UN, EU and NATO will likely find themselves in Kosovo much longer, having to watch over a fragile nation-state, than if they had stayed longer to secure a strong country. Indeed they have positioned themselves to stay indefinitely in the wake of the UDI, only with the European Union taking on many of the local duties of UNMIK, although it, too, will remain in Kosovo.
The result of delivering Kosovo its status in an ad hoc fashion was to create the very reality that is now denied by the international community; a fractured society more divided and at odds now than it was as a decade old post-war environment. The tragedy of the internationals’ actions is not that their mission in Kosovo was doomed to failure; it was that they failed the mission.

Christopher Bobyn, a video-journalist, is currently working on a documentary of Kosovo.
All photos by Christopher Bobyn
© 2009 FrontLine Defence