Date: 31 August 2020

A Teenage Country

Twelve years ago, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence. The declaration was read in the Parliament by Hashim Thaçi, then Prime Minister, and the Republic’s current President. Since the events of 2008, much has changed in Kosovo – not only regarding its head of state but also its citizens. The parliamentary elections of October 2019 marked the first victory for a party whose leaders do not have a background in the Kosovo Liberation Army or in the party of the world’s most famous Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova.


Author: Robert Rajczyk

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), founded thirty years ago, and Adem Jashari, considered its first commander, are for Kosovars the essence of a national myth. T-shirts with the image of a bearded man and the slogan: “Bac, u krye” (Uncle, it is done) have become a symbol of an independent state. Jashari himself has a national hero’s status in Kosovo – almost as much as Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Cuba. Half of the six KLA brigades came from the Drenica region, home to the family of Jashari, who lived in Prekaz. His house became something of a museum and enriched the educational excursion itinerary of Kosovar students. The building was reconstructed after the Serbian army had used mortars to fire on the Kosovo Liberation Army’s soldiers who were defending themselves for four days in March 1998. In the three-day clashes, Adem, his older brother, and his 13-year-old son were killed. The only survivor from Jashari’s closest family was his youngest son, 11-year-old Besart. An examination of Adem Jashieri’s body suggested that he committed suicide, and legend has it that he died singing the Albanian anthem. Therefore, in Kosovo, he is treated with the same respect as the fifteenth-century leader Skanderbeg, who proclaimed an independent Albania and united the Albanians. Meanwhile, in 1997 in Serbia, Jashari was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison on charges of terrorism and the murder of a police officer.As of today, Adem Jashari is the patron of the international airport in the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, the National Theatre of Kosovo, and the stadium in Mitrovica. There are monuments to him being erected throughout the country, and even beyond its borders – in Tirana (Albania), for example.

It is possible that the new football stadium in Kosovo will also be named after Jashari. The new building will replace the current modernized facility for thirteen thousand seats where Kosovo’s national football team plays its matches. This is likely to happen if the leading politicians manage to reach an agreement on the stadium’s location. From 2016 to 2018, after Kosovo had been admitted to UEFA and FIFA, qualification matches were played in the Albanian city of Shkodër, being the only stadium in the area meeting the Federation’s requirements for this type of sporting event.

The divisions related to the new stadium’s location are in line with the political divide in the country. The President of Kosovo is in favor of building it in Pristina. At the same time, the leaders of the opposition party Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (the party of the legendary Kosovar leader, who died in 2006, Ibrahim Rugova) want it to be located in Bernica, north of Pristina. This suggestion has also been rejected due to the high cost of the investment. Therefore, it seems that the new facility will likely be built in Drenas/Glogovac, 30 km west of the capital city, conforming to the vision of the former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj. The reasons for such a choice are its convenient location by the highway and easy access from Pristina airport.

The dispute over the new stadium’s location is only a small part of Kosovo’s political discourse. The main axes of conflict in the country are the influence of international organizations and the USA on political processes in Kosovo and the issue of relations with Serbia. The local political scene has been dominated by political groups originating from the Kosovo Liberation Army (the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, the political leader of which was the current president Hashim Thaçi, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, and the Social Democratic Initiative, NISMA), as well as the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, founded by the most famous Kosovar in the world – Ibrahim Rugova. Interestingly, this politician who is considered the real founding father of sovereign Kosovo did not believe in the KLA’s existence until 1997, when its commanders disclosed their identities, and the army started regular guerrilla warfare against the Serbian army. The conflict ended with NATO intervention in 1999, and, as a result, Kosovo was placed under UN’s supervision. However, the authorities in Belgrade never recognized Kosovo’s independence, and still officially include it in the Republic of Serbia’s administrative territory.

In addition to the block of parties originating from the ULK and the Democratic League of Kosovo, the Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) party is also an important actor on the political scene. It is a typical protest party, with its agenda opposing the missions of international organizations of the UN (UNMIK) and the European Union (EULEX). The party also accused the West of supporting politicians blamed for corruption and war crimes. One of them was, among others, the former two-time Kosovar head of government and leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, who twice stood before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and was acquitted both times of his alleged involvement in the murder of a few dozen people in 1998. During the second trial, several dozen potential witnesses to the prosecution lost their lives in difficult circumstances.


Self-determination, also known in the past for its support for the concept of “Greater Albania” – the reunification of all lands inhabited by Albanians – was against negotiations with Serbia under the auspices of the EU. However, in 2013 and 2015 technical agreements were signed to regulate the mutual relations between the two countries regarding the functioning of the Serbian government in the north of Kosovo, electricity supply, the telephone prefix for Kosovo +383 (the country previously used the Monaco prefix and some other prefixes), or traffic across the famous bridge over the Ibar River in Mitrovica (Kosovo), which divides the town into two parts – Serbian and Albanian.

Serbia still does not formally recognize the independence of its neighbor. Kosovo is for the Serbs the cornerstone of their statehood and its symbol, with a similar importance to the one of Gniezno and Jasna Góra in Poland. In 1389, Serbia’s knights confronted Turkish troops in Kosovo Field. According to some historians, the Polish knights also fought on the Serbian side, and the course of the battle was, in fact, unresolved, although some sources indicate a Turkish victory. Prince Lazar, who was in command of the Serbian army, died and was almost immediately recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, Milos Obilić became a symbol of sacrifice in the name of the nation. He was supposed to trick the Sultan Murad I and deprive him of his life while losing his own[1]. After his death, this legendary figure – because to this day, there is no evidence of its existence – became a cult object, known even on Mount Athos in Greece, one of the most sacred places of the Orthodox Church in the world.

Kosovo once again took on significance in Serbian politics in 1989, when the then little-known Serbian communist Slobodan Milosevic, just like Prince Lazar (who, according to legend, ascended just after his death), arrived by helicopter to meet local Serbs on the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The locals complained about the way the ethnic majority of the province, the Kosovo Albanians, was treating them. During this meeting under Gazimestan, a monument in the shape of a medieval tower commemorating the Battle of Kosovo, the Serbian leader said the famous words of encouragement – that no one would be allowed to beat Kosovar Serbs again. These words gave rise to a serious escalation of the ethnic conflict in the province, which soon lost its autonomous status under an amendment to the constitution, and Kosovo Albanians created an underground parallel state structure led by Ibrahim Rugova.

This resulted in the coexistence of two administrations in Kosovo: the official Serbian administration and the underground Albanian one, the latter of which had practically all the attributes of an independent state – including the armed forces of the KLA. After the UN took over the province, Kosovo’s structures came under the authority of UNMIK (United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo), which led to the creation of the Provisional Combined Administrative Structures and then the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, the subsequent nucleus of the state authorities of the Republic of Kosovo. Power was then shared or exercised alternately by the Democratic League of Kosovo and the Democratic Party of Kosovo.


In foreign policy, the previous governments had primarily focused on extending the formal and legal recognition of Kosovo’s internationally contested independence, and in domestic policy, mainly on the distribution of international financial aid. However, the young state of Kosovo, with its consolidating administrative structures and political system, has become a playing field for organized crime groups, mainly involved in smuggling, which has also been fostered by the high level of unemployment and the unfavorable structure of the local economy dominated by external subsidies – including financial transfers from the Kosovar diaspora around the world, representing over 10% of the country’s GDP. The latter forms of subsidies to the economy of Kosovo have been in place since the time of the underground state. They have served, among other things, as a voluntary tax for the Kosovo Liberation Army. As part of the international aid, non-governmental organizations began to arrive in Kosovo on a massive scale. For some of them, the main purpose of their activities was only to raise money through grants and spend it.

The functioning of the political class, some of which originated from the Kosovo Liberation Army, also leaves much to be desired. For this reason, some politicians, including even the current president himself, have been accused of war crimes and involvement in arms smuggling, trafficking in stolen cars, oil, and cigarettes, as well as human trafficking and procurement. Another serious problem lies in widespread corruption. The Kosovo political and economic elite’s clearance has not been a priority for the parties in power so far. In addition, they have not particularly sought to consolidate the state at institutional and functional levels. Striving to maintain peace and the Balkans’ status quo, the Western world has focused on supporting efforts to stabilize Serbia-Kosovo relations. Politicians who were willing to compromise with Serbia could count on the positive response of the West. And it was precisely the attitude to agreements with the Republic of Serbia that was one of the most important topics on the political agenda in Kosovo. Protests against attempts to reach an agreement with a neighbor with the European Union’s “patronage” took various forms, ranging from street demonstrations to blocking parliamentary proceedings and spraying tear gas on the parliamentary floor. The protests were mainly conducted by the left-wing nationalist party Self-determination, which also opposed the demarcation of the state border with Montenegro, a condition for obtaining visa-free travel with the Schengen area for Kosovo (in the same way as in the case of the neighboring Balkan states). The agreement with Montenegro was negotiated by Hashim Thaçi himself, who was still Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time. Recently, however, as President of the Republic of Kosovo, Thaçi proposed that he and his Serbian counterpart Alexander Vucić should participate in the mutual correction of the two countries’ borders. This would consist of exchanging areas in the north of Kosovo inhabited by Serbs for areas in the Preševo Valley in the south of Serbia inhabited by Albanians and incorporating them into Kosovo. The initiative provoked strong controversy both among the people of Kosovo and the international community, which split between supporters of border correction at the price of stability in this region of the Balkans and opponents of demarcation opting to negotiate technical agreements on the matter.

Another problem of the “teenage state” is also the division with its neighbors, Serbia and Montenegro, of national wealth from the times of the federation of the latter two states. The claims mainly concern the ownership of the Trepča mining complex, the Gazivode water reservoir supplying the hydroelectric power plant and Kosovo Power Station in Obilić, providing nearly 90% of the electricity supply in Kosovo. The World Bank estimates that mineral resources in the region are worth more than €13 billion. In addition, reserves in local mines are likely to last up to 1600 years of exploitation.

The multi-ethnic structure of Kosovo does not facilitate the functioning of the young state either. The country’s constitution guarantees all national minorities, especially the Serb minority (the largest of all minorities), seats in parliament and positions within the government, but this does not solve the economic problems of the republic’s population of two million citizens. The Serbs and their compatriots – the Gorani people, who are Muslims by faith – make up seven percent of the population, while the Roma, who, in turn, cannot count on the support of the home state, make up one percent, which is almost 20 thousand people. Moreover, they are the ones who, together with the Ashkali (the “Albanized” Roma), most often live in the most challenging social conditions and are therefore assisted by non-governmental organizations. An example of one of the NGO’s activities is that in the town of Plementin in the municipality of Obilić, sometimes considered to be the most ecologically degraded place in Europe, after a stay in which some Western NGOs discourage their volunteers from becoming pregnant for a year after returning.

The unstable economic situation is also reflected in the political scene. The average age of the population in Kosovo is 29 years, with every third person in the country unemployed, which strongly affects voter preferences. Slogans for a radical improvement of the social situation gain even more support than demands to combat widespread corruption.

In such an atmosphere, the parliamentary elections in 2019, once again held before the end of the term, were won by the Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) party. Its leader Albin Kurti won the highest number of votes. The party has given up organizing violent street protests and disrupting parliament’s proceedings by spraying tear gas. It adopted a social-democratic economic agenda and started to represent the political left[2]. The Self-determination Party also became an advocate for the normalization of relations with its neighbor Serbia, something the party had previously opposed since it considered the prior attempts to reach an agreement with Serbia as unfavorable and concluded under the dictates of international organizations.

Following the October 2019 elections, the process of establishing the cabinet took several months, making it an infamous tradition of Kosovo’s politics. The winning Self-determination and the Democratic League of Kosovo could not reach an agreement in particular regarding the appointment of ministers and support for a common candidate in the 2021 presidential elections. Eventually, the number of ministries was reduced to fifteen, and the cabinet’s agenda focused on accelerating economic development (economic growth amounts to several percent per year), support for local entrepreneurship, reform of education, health, and the judiciary. The new PM Albin Kurti, however, took vigorous action just after his appointment in early February 2020. The nearly 100% increase in ministerial salaries adopted by the previous cabinet was withdrawn. A partial lifting of the import tariffs on products from Serbia, also established by the predecessors, was announced. Such high tariffs were introduced after Kosovo’s application to join Interpol was rejected. This refusal also resulted in the adoption in mid-December 2018 of amendments to the three laws aimed at transforming the Kosovo Security Force into the army within ten years[3].

Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed positively assessed the actions of Prime Minister Kurti’s government. However, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) filed a vote of no confidence against the head of government. The Prime Minister’s declarations concerning the fight against corruption in the form of the vetting of the assets of judges and staff members of military forces turned out to be a problem. The bone of contention was also the issue of negotiations with neighboring Serbia. Prime Minister Kurti wanted to discuss the situation with Belgrade on an equal footing. The Democratic League of Kosovo, on the other hand, in line with American plans, wanted to reach an agreement with Serbia at the price of territorial exchange in favor of Belgrade. This stance is also supported by the president of Kosovo, who intends to be seen as the main player in Kosovo-Serbian relations in the eyes of the US. Thaçi was supposed to talk to the Serbian president Vučić about the agreement in Washington at the end of June 2020. However, his plane turned back after the prosecutor of the Hague Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office filed an indictment against him. The current President of Kosovo has been accused of being responsible for the crimes committed by soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army while he was commander of the KLA in 1999.

Nevertheless, it would seem that the US President’s ambition is to bring the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia to an end, which includes border revisions and mutual recognition of the parties. That is why on June 3, 2020, exactly four months after the appointment of Mr. Kurti as Prime Minister, with considerable political support from the USA, the Kosovar Parliament approved the establishment of the government of Avdullah Hoti from the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) in coalition with the previously opposing Social Democratic Initiative (NISMA) and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK). The government, which has a low reputation in Kosovo’s people due to the way its predecessors were removed from power, was endorsed by 61 out of 120 parliamentarians. The Vetëvendosje (of the former Prime Minister Kurti) boycotted the vote. Although the current government supports national minorities, Kosovo’s most pressing social problem is still the settlement of relations with the Serbian minority. After all, social studies show that one in four Serbs living in the north of the country does not want to visit the Albanian part of Kosovo.

This article was originally published on The Warsaw Institute Review, issue no. 13, 2/2020.

[1] The mausoleum dedicated to Murad I is located near Gazimestan. It is visible from the tower, which now serves as a tourist attraction and a and historic site.

[2] The party was founded in 2004 as a protest movement against the involvement of international organizations in Kosovo. A year before the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence, a demonstration organized by Self-determination gathered 60,000 participants and was concluded with the police intervention. A 45-year-old Albin Kurti, a former student activist, became the leader of the party.

[3] The Kosovo Security Force comprises 2.5 thousand officers holding light weapons who are responsible for, among other things, civil protection tasks. The Kosovo Security Force is multi-ethnic, with 6% of all local Serbs. After its planned transformation into an armed force, its size is to be doubled.

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