Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pristina Postcard

On Tuesday 17 February 2009 the new Republic of Kosova celebrated its first birthday. The celebrations in the capital, Pristina, were relatively low key. Walking in Rruga Nënë Terezë or throughout the rest of the Qendra, or even in the other, less central districts of the city, one could not but notice the festive mood. A sea of Kosovar and Albanian flags, interspersed with a few American and British ones, hanging from street poles, or attached on car boots and shop fronts added lively colour to the otherwise grim town. Families strolling in the town’s boulevards, street vendors displaying and noisily promoting their wares around Rruga Ilir Konusheci and beyond recreated a pleasant Sunday, festive yet mundane feel. The busier Bill Clinton Boulevard was sometimes gridlocked as hooting cars with Kosovar flags excitedly moved up and down.

But, leaving these manifestations aside, the occasion was a low key affair. The Kosovo assembly met to commemorate and celebrate the declaration of independence and heard Prime Minister Hashim Thaci recount the achievements since independence: ‘The year we left behind was a year of achievement and of pride. It was a year of historic success for our country’.

For those visiting today’s Kosovo, the day to day reality would make it difficult to accept Thaci’s statement at face value: of the UN's 192 countries, only 54 have recognized the new republic. Five EU member states have yet to recognize it despite the fact that EULEX, an EU mission has undertaken to support Kosovo’s route to complete sovereignty and independence in addition to Serbia, Russia, China, India and Bosnia. On the very anniversary of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, angry voices from Serb enclaves north of the Ibar river and from Serbia were reminding that independence is still contested from within and without - MPs from the Serbian parliament in Belgrade expressed their solidarity towards Kosovo’s Serbian minority by visiting Zvecan and attending a session of the Kosovo Serbian assembly based there while the moderate Serbian President Boris Tadić repeated in no uncertain terms the official take that Serbia would never recognise the independence of its former province and would defend its ‘legitimate rights by legal and diplomatic means, not force’. Tense divisions and mutual suspicion remain in place not only in northern Kosovo, where local Serbs live cushioned from the reality of an independent Kosovo, but also in the dozens of enclaves and mixed areas in the South. Serbia’s policy of supporting the northern enclaves and providing services to the Serbs living in there as if nothing had changed in its former province directly challenges Kosovar sovereignty and makes an integration solution much more improbable.

And, although everyday life has considerably improved over the past few years, back in Pristina one needs to look no further than to the still faltering and rationed electricity provision to understand that normality is still a long way away. There is indeed, plenty of ground for pessimism and apprehension.

However, if one casts a closer look at the year that passed since independence, it is possible to find reasons for some guarded optimism. With the exception of a few dramatic gestures from the usual suspects of the Serbian Radical Party, the celebrations were not met with the outrage that the original declaration of independence back in 2008 had been received in Serbia and Serb regions within Kosovo itself. There was not a repeat of the chaos – largely orchestrated - that ensued the declaration of independence all over Serbia back in 2008 and, although negative, most official statements stressed that Serbia remains committed to pursuing its rights through all legal means at its disposal. This represents a sea change in Serbian politics, the culmination of incremental changes over many years. In the course of last year, Serbian voters opted for a more moderate politics as they shunned the Democratic party of Serbia and its leader Vojislav Koštunica. The Serbian Radical Party that enjoyed a marginal increase in its share of the vote and Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia (which were decimated in the polls) nationalist bloc fell short of the number of seats needed to form a government, while Tadić’s pro-EU Democratic Party almost doubled its share of the vote finding itself comfortably ahead of the erstwhile popular Radical Party (SRS). In September 2008, the SRS itself felt the strain of its anti-European, isolationist policies as its de facto leader Tomislav Nikolić and many of the party’s prominent cadres formed the Progressive Party after a disagreement with its leader Vojislav Šešelj, currently held in Hague, over the party’s European policies.

Serbia today remains adamant that Kosovo is an integral part of its territory but it slowly looks forward towards European integration. It seems to be slowly adjusting to the new reality as it has been restoring relations with the countries that recognize Kosovo, stopped encouraging mass action over the breakaway province and no longer refuses entry to holders of passports bearing Kosovo border stamps.

It seems that on both sides of the contested border moderate and forward looking forces are working painstakingly dealing with the many challenges they are facing with pragmatism and perseverance. In Kosovo, the jubilation and euphoria prevalent on the anniversary of the declaration of independence did not degenerate in chauvinistic violence, while Serbia shows signs of coming to terms with the new realities in the Southern Balkans as it looks forward towards European membership. One thing is certain; much more effort will be required on both sides to overcome mutual suspicion and decades of antagonism. Serbian voters will need time to overcome Serbian nationalism’s martyr syndrome that has been inculcated to generation after generation for the past several decades and Kosovo Albanians will too need time to overcome the bitter memories of a repressed and marginalized generation. But the first steps have already been made and need to be recognized and supported … .

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