Kosovo’s long road to full independence nears completion


By a Newsnet reporter

SNP Member of the European Parliament Alyn Smith has welcomed the official closure of the International Civilian Office (ICO) in Prishtina on Monday, formally marking the end of supervised independence and the beginning of true independence for the country. 

By a Newsnet reporter

SNP Member of the European Parliament Alyn Smith has welcomed the official closure of the International Civilian Office (ICO) in Prishtina on Monday, formally marking the end of supervised independence and the beginning of true independence for the country.  Dignitaries from 25 Kosovo-recognising countries, including 22 EU states and Switzerland, Turkey and the US, have today met in Kosovo’s capital to formally close the ICO.

The ICO’s function was to help Kosovan politicians maintain the template for a democratic, secular country which respects the rights of ethnic minorities.

Welcoming the move to true independence, Mr Smyth said:

“The road has been far from easy for the Kosovans, and they’ve still got some way to go yet, but this is a big milestone reached. From the disintegration of Yugoslavia, through a war with Serbia and international supervision of a growing peace, Kosovans have nursed their country and nourished its growth; now they are taking on the responsibility of walking their own path and taking their own decisions like any other nation.

“Kosovo now has a realistic prospect of beginning the journey to EU membership – that will be a long journey, to say the least, and help will be needed. It’s good to welcome another nation to the international family, though, and the EU will be prepared to lend what assistance it can.

“I expect to see a Stabilisation and Association Agreement recommended by the European Commission in October – the standard beginning of the road to EU membership for Western Balkan countries.

“I applaud the new nation and its people for the progress they have made and think it is time that all the nations of the world, and especially all EU countries, should recognise Kosovo as a new independent nation. The UK, to its credit, recognised this nation of two million people the day after it declared independence in 2008, in common with most of the EU’s member countries.

“Kosovo has a lot to do to improve its international image; stamping out lawlessness and corruption, and working to reduce poverty in the country to begin with, but it’s well on its way and we should all welcome that.

“This is another new nation celebrating a new independence day.”

A brief history of the Kosovan dispute

The modern population of Kosovo (Albanian name, Kosova) is overwhelmingly Albanian speaking.  Most Albanian speakers in Kosovo are Muslim, but there is also a significant minority of Roman Catholics.  

There are four main ethnic minority communities in Kosovo.  Orthodox Christian Serbs make up some 7% of the population and are overwhelmingly concentrated in the north, in a district which refuses to accept rule from Prishtina.  In the far south live the Gorani people, who make up about 3% of the population.  The Gorani speak a dialect of Serbian but are Muslim like their Albanian neighbours.  Scattered throughout Kosovo is a substantial minority of Romani speaking gypsies and a much smaller community of Turkish speakers.  

The independence of Kosovo is not recognised by Serbia, from which Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008.  Serbia claims the area as the historic heartland of the Mediaeval Kingdom of Serbia.  Albanians also claim the area as the homeland of the pre-Roman Illyrian tribes from whom modern Albanians descend.  The pre-20th century ethnic composition of Kosovo remains fiercely disputed.

According to Serbia, in the Middle Ages Kosovo’s population was overwhelmingly Serbian.  The region was rich in Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries, and was the cultural, political and religious centre of the Serbian kingdom before it fell to the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century.  

Historians largely agree that the majority of the Kosovan population during this period was Serbian speaking and Orthodox, although most scholars acknowledge that there was also a large and significant population of Albanian speakers.  However during the Ottoman occupation, which lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, Islam was introduced into the area.  In order to avoid punitive Ottoman slave-raids and taxations levied upon non-Muslim peoples, many Orthodox Serbs fled Kosovo to settle further north, to territories still controlled by Christian states.  

Albanians counter that many of the people claimed as Serbs in pre-Ottoman times were in fact Albanian speaking followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  Most of the Albanian speaking Christians converted to Islam, which gave them a privileged position in the Ottoman system of government.  As relations between Serbs and Albanians polarised, those Albanians who remained Orthodox Christian tended to assimilate into the Serbian community, while the remainder converted to Catholicism.  

About 65,000 Albanian Catholics live in Kosovo.  Relations between Catholic and Muslim Albanians are traditionally cordial and there is considerable intermarriage between the faith groups.  Some families follow both Islamic and Catholic practices, attending the Mosque on Fridays and Mass on Sundays.

Facing severe discrimination from the Turkish authorities, many Serbian speaking Orthodox Christians either went into exile, or converted to Islam and largely assimilated into the Albanian speaking population.  The Gorani people of southern Kosovo, numbering around 60,000, are a remnant of these Islamicised Serbs.  Other Albanian speaking Muslims were encouraged to settle in the region by the Ottomans.  By the end of Ottoman rule, Albanian speaking Muslims formed a clear majority in the region.

The deep antipathy and mutual distrust between the Serbs and Albanians of Kosovo dates to the Ottoman period.  Unlike relations between Albanian Catholics and Muslims, there was little intermarriage between Serbian Orthodox believers and Albanians of either faith, and the two ethnic communities tended to live in separate villages or districts.  

Tensions remained high after the Balkan Wars saw the break up of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and the Treaty of London of 1913 awarded Kosovo to Serbia, against the wishes of local Albanians.  After WW1, Serbia united with the former Austro-Hungarian provinces of Croatia and Slovenia to form Yugoslavia.  

Between 1912 and 1941 a large-scale Serbian re-colonisation of Kosovo was undertaken by the Belgrade government in order to “re-Serbianise” the area.  Interwar Yugoslavia did not recognise the Albanians, who were denied the right to education in their own language and were subject to severe discrimination in employment and housing.  The Yugoslav government of the day encouraged its Muslim population to identify as Turks and to migrate to Turkey.

But despite efforts by Belgrade to increase the Serbian population, over the decades the proportion of the Kosovan population identifying as Serbian steadily decreased.  Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo had the fastest rate of growth in population in Europe, although in recent years the birth-rate has declined to approach the European average.  Over the course of the 20th century, the population of Kosovo quintupled, mainly due to the high birth-rate amongst the Albanian speaking community.  Albanians constituted 60% of Kosovo’s 500,000 population in 1931, but by the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars Albanians made up 81% of Kosovo’s 2 million people.

After WW2, Kosovo became an autonomous province of Serbia and the Albanian language was officially recognised.  Despite agitation from Albanians for full republic status within Yugoslavia, equal to Slovenia or Croatia, these demands were rebuffed by Belgrade.  Although the province’s autonomy was enhanced in the 1960s and 1970s, tensions between Albanians and Serbs remained high and worsened considerably during the 1980s.

In 1989 as the break up of Yugoslavia loomed, Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević drastically reduced Kosovo’s special autonomous status within Serbia.   Kosovo Albanians responded with what was initially a non-violent movement seeking full independence, but it was not to last.  By the early 1990s with the former Yugoslav republics at war with one another, violence between the Serbs and Albanians of Kosovo was widespread.

As the violence increased, fears grew that the Milošević government was planning to ethnically cleanse all of Kosovo and drive out the Albanians.  Yugoslav forces and Serbian militias occupied the province and there were widespread allegations of violence directed against the Albanians.  Matters came to a head in 1999, when over 1 million Albanians fled, were internally displaced, or were forcibly expelled from Kosovo.  

Faced with a mass exodus of Albanians, Western countries took action.  NATO commenced a bombing campaign, without the authorisation of the UN Security Council, with the declared aim of forcing Milošević to withdraw his troops from Kosovo and to allow the Albanian refugees to return.   Although the Serbian government refused to negotiate on the status of Kosovo, insisting it was an integral part of Serbia, Milošević ordered the withdrawal of his forces.

With the withdrawal of Serbian forces after the NATO bombing campaign, ethnic cleansing by Albanian militias further reduced the already diminished Serbian population and reduced them to an enclave around the town of Mitrovica in the far north of Kosovo.  This district still refuses to accept the government in Prishtina and government services in this area are run by the Serbian authorities.

The violence caused the deaths of an estimated 11,000 people, with a further 3,000 still missing.  2500 of those missing are Albanians, the remainder Serbs and Roma.

Following the fragile ceasefire, the UN took over the administration of Kosovo until its final status could be settled.  Belgrade accepted that it would give up the exercise of its sovereignty over Kosovo pending a final status settlement.

But without a middle ground and compromise there can be no negotiations.  The Albanian majority refuse to countenance a return to Serbian rule with the same vehemence with which the Serbs insist that Kosovo must remain Serbian.  Under UN supervision, elections were held in Kosovo in 2001 and 2007.  The new Kosovan Parliament remained under the supervision of UN and EU representatives.

In 2008 the newly elected Kosovan Parliament unilaterally declared Kosovo’s independence.  Although many states, including the UK, the USA and France, immediately recognised Kosovan independence, other states including Russia and Spain refused.  Serbia rejected the independence declaration, calling it illegal and refusing to recognise Kosovan sovereignty.

In December 2008 most of the functions of the UN representatives in Kosovo were taken over by a new body, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo.  

The International Court of Justice was asked to render an advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia. The advisory opinion, issued on 22 July 2010, held that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not in violation of international law.

The advisory opinion cleared the way for the gradual withdrawal of UN and EU supervision of Kosovan government.  With Monday’s closure of the ICO office in Prishtina, Kosovo’s rocky road to independence is essentially complete – bar the thorny questions of the Serbian populated district of Mitrovica and the continuing Serbian view that Kosovo is a UN administered entity within sovereign Serbian territory.

Kosovo has many problems, organised crime and corruption is rife, poverty is widespread, and the economy is struggling.  But for the first time since the Romans subdued the Illyrian ancestors of the Albanians, Kosova’s Albanians are once again in charge of their own destiny.