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Kosovo struggles to unite after ICJ ruling

The legitimacy of Kosovar independence won out in last month's trial at the International Court of Justice, but uniting the country under one flag - and government - is proving a difficult task.

A statue in Pristina

Like any newborn, Kosovo faces a period of adjustment

They stand in the center of Kosovo's capital, Pristina – enormous yellow block-letters spelling out a simple word: Newborn. When the installation was put in place in February 2008, it was a bold, bright assertion of Kosovo's new identity. The territory had just unilaterally declared independence from Serbia and the atmosphere was euphoric. Kosovo's Albanian majority had long felt stifled by the grip of Belgrade – ethnic Albanian separatists had fought a devastating war with Serbs in the 1990s – and finally, their long struggle for autonomy had been granted.

But two and a half years on, the yellow letters have been defaced by graffiti and they look scratched and grimey. The gloss of independence night has faded as Kosovo's population has begun to realise the scale of the challenges facing what most see as their new country.

Serbian flag flies in front of an apartment block in Mitrovica

The people in this apartment building reckon they're in Serbia

Many holdouts

Most, but not all. Kosovo's Serb minority largely reject the secession and many refuse to cooperate with what they see as an illegal self-proclaimed government. The Ibar River ethnically divides Kosovo's northern city of Mitrovica: in the Serb-dominated north, Pristina still exercises virtually no control. Serbian flags flutter above buildings, the local currency is the Serbian 'dinar' and Belgrade-backed 'parallel institutions' are in place. Cross the river to the south, and the majority is Albanian.

Kosovar Serb Diana Mitro and her baby

She has a new country, but hasn't gone anywhere

“I've lived in Serbia until now”, thirty-five year old Diana tells me as she carries her baby daughter down the main street in North Mitrovica. “I can't say I'm living in a different state. The situation is bad for us”, she says, “there's no security.” “I think the north will never be part of the independent republic of Kosovo”, says another woman, “just like the rest of Kosovo will no longer be part of Serbia.”

Ignoring the ruling

Many Serbs here are disappointed by last month's decision by the International Court of Justice in the Hague (ICJ), which found that Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate international law. The court's opinion was sought by Serbia, which still considers Kosovo its own southern province and the cradle of Serbian culture. Belgrade has vowed to fight on, but Pristina hopes the court's decision will persuade countries that have not yet recognised Kosovo to change tack.

Kosovo's attempts to present itself as a fully-functional, self-sufficient state are hampered not only by resistance from the north but also by corruption, said by international observers to be widespread and institutional. A recent anti-corruption drive has been led by Kosovo's large European Union rule of law mission, EULEX, backed up by local bodies.

Sensitive issues

The offices of Kosovo's telecoms agency, PTK, were raided last month and, in a separate operation, the Central Bank Governor was arrested on allegations of fraud. But when EULEX began investigating the Minister of Transport – an old ally of Kosovo's Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci – the government reacted badly. So, I ask the Prime Minister, is he protecting former colleagues, rather than being frank and open with the population?

EULEX police officer with machine gun

EULEX police can mount raids but their powers are limited

“I will not protect anyone”, he tells me. “The law will be without compromise for all those who violate it. The past gives immunity to nobody.”

I put to him findings from reports which show that most of the population doubt the government's commitment to the rule of law.

“This the first government that has started fighting corruption after ten years of closing our eyes to this phenomenon”, he says. “It isn't an easy or a short battle. But it's a battle I'm convinced we will win.”

So would he support any corruption probe which moves from the Minister of Transport further – and perhaps higher – into his government?

“Of course”, he replies. “I will lead the war against corruption.”

Same old

Ilar Deda of the KIPRED think thank

Deda is skeptical that anti-corruption efforts will bear fruit

But critics say the rhetoric doesn't match the reality. “The entire corruptive activities happen within our government”, says Ilir Deda, director of the political think-tank, KIPRED. “There is no political will to fight corruption because it would mean that the political establishment would have to start fighting itself.”

“What we've heard in the past eleven years is praise for Kosovo – that it's going in the right direction. But we don't think it is”, he says. “The endemic problems are not getting solved and number one here is political corruption.” He argues the international community must reduce its presence in Kosovo and “allow our political elite to fail and then own up to the results they deliver.”

Kosovar passports

At least the passports in Kosovo work properly

Hope remains

In a modern Pristina office, high-tech machines implant electronic chips into the new Kosovan passports; the gold stamp of the Republic of Kosovo proudly set against a dark-blue background. It's a process held up by the European Commission as a model of sophistication and efficiency. In some areas, Kosovo indeed functions well. Sixty-nine countries have recognised it, it's a member of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and, since the ICJ ruling, it has renewed momentum. But state-building is a slow and difficult process. And Kosovo has deep-rooted problems to solve.

Author: Mark Lowen
Editor: Matt Hermann

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