The central government building in Pristina, Kosovo, is made almost entirely of glass. A former bank, it was renovated after the violent Serbian conflict in 1999 to symbolize Kosovo’s hopes for economic prosperity and transparent governance. But the view from the northwest side reflects a different reality: A row of run-down and decaying residences stand testament to a long history of political repression. This image contains both the hope and the challenge of Kosovo’s future.
I observed these contradictions two summers ago—as preparations for an independent future first began—when I was fortunate enough to work for a development organization in Kosovo. Despite the many challenges of post-conflict reconstruction, Kosovo’s committed leaders and democratic spirit persuaded me that this tiny nation could thrive.
On Sunday, Kosovo’s hopes became a reality as the mountainous, predominately ethnic-Albanian enclave became the latest in a long line of Balkan states to assert its independence from Serbian rule. Already, the news has created division among members of the world community: The United States and most major European nations, including 20 members of the European Union, have endorsed Kosovo’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, nations with significant separatist movements of their own, including Russia, have sided with Serbia and refused to recognize the split. Perhaps most significantly, Serbian President Boris Tadic announced that he will use diplomatic but not violent means to maintain his country’s territorial integrity. In rhetoric that deviates from the obstinate declarations of past Serbian leaders, this subtle concession to Kosovo’s self-governance is a hopeful sign for stability in the region.
This is not Kosovo’s first taste of self-determination. The territory enjoyed some nominal autonomy as a Serbian province in the Yugoslav Federation, at times maintaining independent governing bodies and heads of state. When Yugoslavia dissolved into internal strife in the early 1990s, Kosovo publicly declared independence for the first time. That declaration, recognized only by neighboring Albania, helped spur repression in the region that culminated with ethnic cleansing directed by Serbia’s ultra-nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic. After NATO intervention put an end to conflict in Kosovo in 1999, the territory became a United Nations Protectorate. Despite embracing a democratic interim constitution and suppressing widespread violence under U.N. care, it continues to be plagued by political corruption, ethnic tension, and stunted economic growth.
Yet even with abundant barriers to a stable, multi-ethnic state, I found a vast reservoir of political will among shop owners, students, members of Parliament, and unemployed persons alike. It is this spirit that makes me confident of Kosovo’s ability to overcome the challenges of being an independent state.
Kosovo’s largely grassroots effort in democratic governance is sustained by the commitment and tireless work of citizens, elected officials, and NGOs. Members of Parliament are not life-long politicians, but doctors, teachers, lawyers, and human-rights activists, each with a unique story about the dehumanizing effects of political repression. And as self-governance takes root, a new generation of Kosovars is preparing to lead: Nearly every college student I encountered was studying law or political science. This dedication to democracy has also extended past formal political institutions. A growing group of NGOs have developed government oversight capabilities, and in these community organizations, I frequently encountered Serbs and Albanians working together.
Though unemployment is high in Kosovo, citizens maintain an unwavering commitment to meeting the conditions of European Union membership. In my conversations with both Serb civil-society leaders and Albanian party officials, the potential to participate in international economic and political alliances reliably outweighed bitterness about the past.
In fact, the most striking sentiment I found among leaders and citizens alike was a desire to come to terms with the past by moving forward together—a sentiment that was echoed on Sunday by Prime Minster Hashim Thaçi as he reaffirmed Kosovo’s commitment to creating a multi-ethnic, non-discriminatory state.
Independence will not be easy. The government will need to intensify its commitment to collecting small arms and disbanding violent groups. It must redouble its effort to return property and guarantee safe return for its displaced ethnic-Serbian citizens.Though institutional development will move this nation forward, the strength of its citizens’ commitment to pluralist democracy will determine its success.
A nation of contradictions, Kosovo has seen some of the worst violence in Europe since World War II and still bears the scars of ethnic cleansing. Yet on Sunday it devoted itself to peaceful progress, democratic governance, and meaningful reconciliation. If the conciliatory text of Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence is any indication, the nation has a difficult but promising future ahead.
Bridget Fahey is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.