Pall still hangs over Kosovo 10 years after independence

PRISTINA (Kosovo) • The assassination of a prominent Serb politician has cast another dark cloud over Kosovo as it 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 guerillas 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 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 yet to be identified, has "the potential to destabilise Kosovo", political analyst Ramush Tahiri told Agence France-Presse. It has already prompted the suspension of European Union-mediated talks between Serb and Kosovo negotiators, which had been due to resume on the day Mr Ivanovic was killed.

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

Tensions already rose in December after lawmakers in Kosovo made a failed bid to scrap a new special court trying ethnic former Albanian guerillas 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", said United States ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie, 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.

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-to 24-year-olds, according to Kosovo's Agency of Statistics.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'Pall still hangs over Kosovo 10 years after independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe