Dark clouds loom over Kosovo 10 years after independence

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic tour the Banjska monastery in Kosovo, on Jan 20, 2018.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic tour the Banjska monastery in Kosovo, on Jan 20, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PRISTINA, KOSOVO (AFP) - The assassination of a prominent Serb politician has cast another dark cloud above Kosovo as it is prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of its independence.

Unilaterally declared on Feb 17, 2008, the independence of Serbia's breakaway province is recognised by more than 110 countries.

But Belgrade and many of the 120,000 members of Kosovo's Serb minority refuse to do so almost 20 years after the 1990s war.

The conflict pitting Serbian security forces against Kosovo Albanian guerrillas claimed 13,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.

The Jan 16 murder of moderate Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic has sparked fresh tensions in the volatile region.

The 64-year-old was shot dead from a car in northern Mitrovica, a Serb-populated part of the ethnically divided flashpoint town.

He was the only top Kosovo Serb politician to have publicly denounced Belgrade's policies in Kosovo, earning him the label "traitor" from detractors.

The murder, whose perpetrators have not yet been identified, has "the potential to destabilise Kosovo", political analyst Ramush Tahiri told AFP.

It already prompted the suspension of EU-mediated talks between Serb and Kosovo negotiators, which had been due to resume on the day Mr Ivanovic was killed.

The indefinite halt of discussions "is bad for our country", commented Zeri, one of Kosovo's leading daily newspapers.

Begun in 2011 under EU auspices, the process of normalising ties has been at a standstill for months. A number of key issues remain yet to be solved, including the status of "Serb-majority municipalities".

Tensions already rose in December after lawmakers in Kosovo (which has a population of 1.8 million) made a failed bid to scrap a new special court trying ethnic Albanian ex-guerrillas suspected of committing war crimes during the 1998-1999 conflict.

The EU-backed tribunal, based in The Hague, is poised to begin issuing indictments.

But senior war veterans of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) have demanded that MPs abolish the law on what they say is a "biased" court.

President Hashim Thaci, the former head of the KLA's political wing, is rumoured to be among those being prosecuted for the alleged kidnapping and disappearance of around 500 civilians, mostly ethnic Serbs.

A brother of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is also thought to be under investigation.

Calling the court into question would be "a terrible example of self interest prevailing over the common good and Kosovo's interest as a state", the US ambassador to Kosovo, Mr Greg Delawie, said, warning that the move would have "harsh consequences".

It would turn Kosovo into a "rogue state" joining the ranks of North Korea or Iran, according to security expert Lulzim Peci.

For some Kosovars, the situation has already taken a turn for the worse.

"It is too late to change something," said Mr Zenel Kastrati, 57, a shopkeeper in Pristina, who is against a "confrontation with the United States and other western friends".

Having reunited after years of bitter infighting, the former KLA chiefs barely retained power in legislative elections in June.

But their majority is thin and observers say the fall of Mr Haradinaj's government could soon become a reality as it depends on the support of 10 Serb MPs in Parliament who oppose abolishing the war crimes court.

Meanwhile, the nationalist left-wing opposition Vetevendosje (Self-determination) - the strongest party in the country - faces its own power struggles.

The party is divided between supporters of its founder and leader Albin Kurti and those who oppose his re-election as party leader at a regular vote due in the coming weeks.

Kosovo's dismal economic situation has also blunted the enthusiasm of post-independence.

Nearly one Kosovar out of three is unemployed, with the jobless rate currently at 52 per cent among 15-24 year olds, according to Kosovo's Agency of Statistics.

Although the average salary officially is 363 euro (S$586.07), a third of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.

While there is no official data, it is estimated that tens of thousands of people emigrate each year to western countries.

For Kosovars, the priority is visa liberalisation for the European Union's passport-free Schengen zone - one more reason to not upset the West.