Kosovo officially gained all the rights of sovereignty on Monday, marking the end of monitored controls by the international community. Problems and uncertainty linger, however - especially in the North.
Dutchman Pieter Feith's office is now closing. Having been responsible for monitoring the independence of Kosovo over the last four and a half years, his main task of implementing the Kosovo Status Plan of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari is essentially completed.
The Status Plan of 2008 gave Kosovo the right to its own constitution, its own flag and a national anthem. The country was also allowed to set up its own "multiethnic and professional" army, institute border controls, and form an intelligence service and a police force. In addition, Kosovo was granted the right to negotiate and sign international agreements and "pursue membership in international organizations." The rights of the Serbian minority were to be ensured, and Albanian and Serbian were to be the official languages.
Feith's office, which was given the right to veto Kosovo laws, was more powerful than any other institution in the newly independent state. The Dutchman could block any law or proposal that did not meet the conditions of the Ahtisaari plan. Early this July, Feith certified that Kosovo had become a "modern, multi-ethnic" democracy. The conditions for terminating the monitoring mission had been fulfilled, said the International Steering Committee for Kosovo in Vienna, whose members include most European Union countries, the United States and Turkey.
The Ahtisaari plan, over the years, has become an integral part of Kosovo's body of laws and led to a territorial reorganization of the country. In areas with a Serb majority, five new communities have been founded, and the cultural and religious heritage of minorities has been given special protection under the law. More than anything, progress toward assuring the rights of the non-Albanian minority - predominately Serbs - has helped Kosovo achieve its goal of unrestricted sovereignty.
Nevertheless, for many citizens of the country, the present situation is not satisfactory.
Arben Veselaj, who is now 40 years old, spent his youth in Kosovo under the regime of former Serb strongman, Slobodan Milosevic. His dream was, one day, to live in an independent country. That dream came true in 2008 for him and the other ethnic Albanian Kosovars.
But even so, he has reservations today, because his vision of an independent Kosovo had been different.
"I would never have thought that our country would be so far from the interests of its people. To me, it's almost as if, along with independence, a new, negative mindset has taken hold," he said. Before, everyone hated the Serbian institutions because they were like occupiers, he said, "and this feeling is still there."
For Veselaj, Kosovo has grown poorer in more ways than one. He believes economic development has stagnated, and there is corruption in public services and health care. For him, the end of international supervision for Kosovo amounts to little more than an emotional fulfillment.
Problems in the North
Strengthening minority rights was a core element in the original recommendations for Kosovo from former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
Xhelal Hama, 55, is a teacher. He is a member of the predominately Muslim Bosniak minority and lives in the southern - or mostly Albanian - part of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. He remembers the declaration of independence more than four years ago. Looking back, the years since have been a success story - because otherwise, the supervision of Kosovo's institutions would be continuing, he said.
However, many of his ethnic kin live in the northern part of Mitrovica, which is controlled by the Serbs. In that part of the city, hardly any progress has been made in implementing the Ahtisaari plan.
"The problems are the same as they were in the last 13 years, and I mean mostly the safety and security of my fellow countrymen in North Mitrovica," he said. Bosniaks, like the ethnic Albanians, have been suffering under the ethnic confrontations in North Mitrovica.
Now, at the end of his mission, Pieter Feith said in Vienna that he was confident the problems in Serb-majority North Mitrovica could be resolved.
The Serbs living there, however, do not appear particularly impressed by Kosovo receiving full sovereignty rights. The people there are determined to act the way they have acted over the last 13 years, says Marko Jaksic, a Kosovo Serb and member of parliament in Serbia.
"In northern Kosovo, we have Serbian institutions. The people are determined to live in the state of Serbia and to respect the constitution of Serbia, which views Kosovo as a part of that state," he said.
Continued international presence
Rada Trajkovic is one of the best-known representatives of the Kosovo Serbs. As a deputy in the Kosovo parliament, she represents the district of Gracanica, which was formed by the Ahtisaari plan after the independence of Kosovo. She believes the end of the monitoring mission is coming too soon. There is still a great deal of criminality and corruption in Kosovo, she argues.
"With the end of supervision, the international community would like to give Kosovo institutions more power in northern Kosovo, but there really is no termination of the international presence in Kosovo, as long as we have EULEX and KFOR here," she said, referring to the EU administrative and NATO peace force missions.
The NATO-led KFOR mission has 5,000 troops stationed in Kosovo, and they will be staying there for the time being - along with the 1,250 international legal experts and police supporting the EU's EULEX administrative and infrastructure mission.
In a letter to the EU last Monday, Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga asked for a two-year extension of the EULEX mission. That Kosovo's constitution allows activities by international missions with executive decision-making powers in Kosovo means that international judges, prosecutors and police can continue their work as before. They will continue to have international immunity, although their future work must conform to the Kosovo constitution. The Ahtisaari plan will no longer function as Kosovo's constitution.
Kosovo legal expert Arsim Bajrami explained how the Ahtisaari plan is part of the law, "but the guidelines that gave the Ahtisaari plan priority over the constitution will no longer be valid." Bajrami, who worked on the legislation that prepared the end to supervision of the country's independence, added that "the Kosovo constitution will now become the most important legal document for Kosovo."
Bajrami knows that the termination of supervision is only a legal formality, and that the international presence in Kosovo will continue for the foreseeable future. He also views this as a necessity for a country that depends on international financial assistance. But even so, for him, achieving full national sovereignty for Kosovo represents "a historic day."