Balkan Birthday: Kosovo Seeks Calm as it Celebrates First Year

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Kosovo on Tuesday celebrated the first anniversary of its declaration of independence from Serbia. The country is struggling economically and security remains shaky. But Belgrade has recently sought to lower tensions in the region.

The plan sounded like little more than a gratuitous provocation. Speaker of the Serbian Parliament Slavica Djukic-Dejanovic announced recently that the law-making body would travel south from Belgrade to convene in northern Kosovo on Tuesday of this week. The day was carefully chosen -- it coincides with celebrations in Kosovo of the one-year anniversary of its independence from Serbia.

As it turns out, the rest of the plan wasn't thought out in as much detail. Media reports in Belgrade on Tuesday indicated that few parliamentarians planned to make the trip, with the nationalist opposition blaming the governing coalition for the change in plan. The government, they say, intentionally placed an important vote on Tuesday's schedule, making it impossible for parliamentarians to reach Kosovo by the afternoon.

Such an explanation is certainly possible. Across Kosovo this week, the country is celebrating its first year of existence with concerts planned for Pristina along with parades and fireworks. For Serbian nationalists, of course, such festivities are an insult -- a reminder that a part of what they consider to be the Serbian heartland has turned its back on Belgrade.

Serbia's government, though, has for months been intent on lowering tensions with Kosovo. To be sure, Belgrade has gone out of its way to avoid any indication that it recognizes Kosovo independence. But the new government of Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, which was voted into office last summer, has shown that it has more pressing priorities.

"The new government doesn't have the same obsession about Kosovo as the former one did," Peter Palmer, Balkans project director for the International Crisis Group, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "This government's highest priority is progress toward European Union membership. They would rather avoid tensions in Kosovo if they threatened to get in the way of that objective."

The most concrete example of the renewed effort at cooperation can be seen in the ongoing deployment of EULEX, the European Union mission to Kosovo aimed at helping the country build up its police forces and judicial system. Initially, Belgrade was resistant to allowing the mission into parts of northern Kosovo where Serbs are in the majority, fearing that the EU was promoting Kosovo independence. Careful negotiations involving Serbia and its close ally Russia, however, paved the way for the mission to go ahead in December.

Economic Malaise

"This is an example of Belgrade's will to find practical solutions," says Palmer.

Kosovo seceded from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008, almost a decade after the 1998-1999 war between Serbs and separatist guerrillas belonging to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. In the years that followed, Kosovo was essentially an international protectorate secured by NATO peacekeepers. In the last 12 months of independence, the small nation has made huge strides toward statehood, issuing passports, adopting a new constitution and establishing an army and a police force.

Nevertheless, a year into Kosovo's independence, security remains an issue. There was an uptick in violence in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in December and January, with a number of shops going up in flames. Responding firemen came under attack as well. Ahead of Tuesday's anniversary, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci urged his countrymen to remain calm, saying that any incidents of violence would "serve those that speak against Kosovo independence."

But as much attention as the security situation in Europe's youngest state receives, it is the economy that continues to be the country's Achilles' heel. The region has been one of Europe's poorest for decades, and the situation has become no better in the last 12 months. Fully 40 percent of the country's working-age population is unemployed, with the rate even higher in rural regions, and roughly half the population lives on a paltry €1.50 per day.

Furthermore, foreign investment has proven almost non-existent. Not only is money short because of the global economic downturn, but Kosovo's status itself has scared off many potential investors. Despite having friends in powerful places -- such as Berlin, Paris and Washington -- Kosovo has been recognized by only 54 countries worldwide.

Plus, Belgrade has contested the legality of Kosovo's declaration and the United Nations has agreed that it be examined by the International Court of Justice. Many companies and countries have preferred to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

On Tuesday, though, such worries have taken a back seat, with thousands taking to the streets to celebrate Kosovo's first birthday. In Pristina, many restaurants were handing out free champagne.

President Fatmir Sejdiu, though, was not in a partying mood. In an address delivered to Kosovo's parliament on Tuesday, he warned that, even if cooperation with Serbia has improved slightly, the situation remains tense. "Serbia is continuing its interference," he says. "And that has the tendency to destabilize us."

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