In February 2008, Europe’s youngest country declared independence as a ‘multi-ethnic state’. In the aftermath of its conflict with Serbia, post-war Kosovo was shepherded towards its new identity by the United Nations, Europe and the US. The West spent 25 times more money per capita here than on post-war Afghanistan. But as the country and its ethnic Albanian majority celebrated 10 years of independence last Saturday, it’s clear that efforts to turn Kosovo into a multi-ethnic state have failed and minorities remain locked out of mainstream society.
Serb and Roma minority groups are isolated in separate municipalities. The Serbian Decani Monastery still has Nato soldiers guard its gates and Orthodox Serb families living near the eastern border with Serbia say they might wave at their Albanian neighbours, but they would never go inside their homes. Over 100,000 Roma, who fled the 1998 war still live in exile abroad. Many still remain in Montenegro’s Konik camp, preferring to endure ghetto-like conditions for two decades rather than go home. While the constitution is packed with anti-discrimination laws, they have largely not been implemented. Instead, minorities remain socially and economically excluded. The Egyptian minority, for example, faces 80 per cent unemployment– nearly three times the rest of the population.
The idea of a multi-ethnic state was a solution to deadlocked negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo over territory in the mid-2000s. The borders could not be changed, said international policy groups – Serbia could not claim the Serb-majority North and there was to be no Kosovo-Albania unification, as many had hoped for. Instead, the country was to be a shining example of minority inclusive nation-building.
To reinforce that idea, parliament unveiled a new flag with six stars. One for each of the country’s major ethnic groups, the smallest of which – the Slavic Muslim Goranis – numbered at just over 10,000. The flag was blue and yellow, a nod to the European Union and an antidote to the red and black Albanian eagle that Kosovo’s Liberation Army had fought under during the war. A new anthem was instrumental only, so words couldn’t offend in any language. But its European-inspired melodies and message of peace failed to resonate. ‘The anthem sucks’, a 27-year-old computer science student told me in the capital Pristina. ‘The Albanian anthem just has more feeling.’
For Kosovo to adopt the identity of a multi-ethnic state, the majority had to subscribe to the idea. But in a country where 92 per cent identify as ethnic Albanian, the new label was too progressive. As the rise of populism across France, Germany and the Netherlands has shown, even today, European nations struggle to fully embrace multi-ethnic societies.
Instead, many Kosovo Albanians saw their multi-ethnic tag line as part of the independence deal. In his office in central Pristina, Adrian Zeqiri, director of Kosovo’s European Centre for Minority Issues, said:
‘One of the major compromises made for Kosovo independence was the dilution of the Albanian element [of our identity].’
The identity imposed on Kosovo was rootless; it attempted to erase history rather than re-shape it. Unconvincing nation branding meant communities were left looking to their ethnicities for their identity. Albanians were still Albanians, Serbs were still Serbs, Roma were still Roma. Today it is rare to meet someone who defines themselves first as Kosovar.
But blame also sits with the country’s failing economy that suffers from high unemployment, corrupt officials and a sovereign status that still continues to be disputed. For the leader of the largest opposition group in parliament, Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s economic problems stem from a lack of Albanian autonomy. The left-wing politician, whose party has seen a drastic rise in popularity, calls Kosovo ‘an international protectorate’, governed by the politics and priorities of other countries.
‘I think that they end up making sure that things remain stable and calm and peaceful rather than just and progressive’, says the 42-year-old, in the Vetëvendosje party headquarters, ‘So they have this conservative approach, they think about what they can lose, not what they can win’.
Perhaps Kosovo does need radical change for its next decade of independence. But radical change can have radical consequences. Kurti’s policy promises include a referendum on unification with Albania – a threat Serbia interprets as ‘banging the drums of war’. Any increase in tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, will again put minorities in a vulnerable position.
As Kosovo celebrates its 10-year independence anniversary, many of the country’s communities will see festivities as remote – celebrating an identity they feel no part of.