Four and a half years after declaring independence, Kosovo is now to enjoy full sovereignty. But organized crime, corruption, poverty, and tense diplomatic relations are just some of the problems the state faces.
In July, the International Steering Group (ISG) - whose task it is to supervise Kosovo's independence, and which includes representatives from most EU states as well as the US and Turkey - agreed to end its monitoring of the process. The concept of "supervised independence" which lay behind the ISG's work was developed by the former UN Kosovo mediator Martti Ahtisaari and gave the ISG the right to block laws or stop ministerial appointments.
On Friday (07.09.2012), the parliament in Pristina passed all the constitutional changes necessary to allow Kosovo full independence. A large majority of the members of the minority parties in parliament also voted for the changes. The government hailed what it called "a historic day" and "the beginning of a new era."
Kosovo is now a "modern, multi-ethnic democracy" with institutions that are ready to take on full responsibility, according to the ISG's explanation of its decision to grant full autonomy.
Lacking control in the North
Balkan expert Norbert Mappes-Niediek agrees with the committee's evaluation.
"You're independent when you comport yourself as such. And that's what Kosovo has done. They have freed themselves. For a long time, they offered passive resistance in Serbia. They led a war and became a nation by doing so. They don't need anyone to attest to whether they're mature enough or not," Mappes-Niediek said.
Kosovo declared its independence on February 17, 2008, with support from most countries in the West, including Germany, the US, Great Britain and France. The move came after the failure of Ahtisaari's efforts to reach a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina. Then Ahtisaari proposed a plan in 2007 that would allow Kosovo to transition to independence with oversight from an International Civilian Office. His plan was put into place without Belgrade's approval, and it was never recognized in northern Kosovo, where the majority of residents are Serbs.
Now the international monitoring mission has been concluded, although the government in Pristina still has no real control over the North. This is just one of several enormous problems that Kosovo's institutions now face.
Poverty, crime, economic dependence
"Economically, Kosovo is in no way able to stand on its own two feet," said Mappes-Niediek, noting that it remains the poorest country in the region and has a massive brain drain of young people: "Kosovo can only survive with immense economic aid. Of course that limits its sovereignty, and this formal acquisition of sovereignty doesn't have all that much meaning. It faces severe limitations due to its economic and political dependency."
With an average yearly income of about 2,000 euros ($2,558) per person, Kosovo is still Europe's poor house. Officially, unemployment sits at 43 percent, and 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. Major challenges include the fight against corruption and organized crime.
Arsim Bajrami works as a professor in Kosovo and is convinced that the republic can overcome these issues. "Organized crime and corruption are things that happen within Kosovo, and the people here know best how they operate. That's why I'm certain that they can only be combated by Kosovo's institutions. The international community has failed in fighting these things. So now it's up to our institutions to do that," Bajrami said.
Independence with limits
Bajrami admits that Kosovo's institutions can no longer blame anyone else for corruption and organized crime, but he says it's clear that the government and Kosovo police alone will not be able to lead a fight against corruption and organized crime in the North. To do so, they need support from NATO's peace force KFOR and from the EU administrative mission EULEX.
"There's not absolute sovereignty yet. Kosovo needs support from KFOR and NATO to provide security and integrity," Bajrami said.
For the former Serbian minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, there are still other challenges ahead - particularly with respect to the Serbian minority.
"There's the freedom of movement issue, the problem with Serbian property in Kosovo, the lack of willingness among the political elite in Pristina and Belgrade to reach reconciliation and the return of refugees," Bogdanovic said, arguing that these problems cannot be solved without the international community's help.
Kosovo still has not won full international recognition. Just 91 of the 193 UN member nations have acknowledged Europe's youngest country, and five EU members (Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia) still do not recognize Kosovo's independence. One reason for that is that nearly all of those five countries have their own problems with minority groups and fear setting a precedent.
Of even greater concern is the Serbian government's repeated insistence that it will never recognize the independence of its former province. Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina remain as strong as ever.
But Mappes-Niediek does not believe the situation will get significantly worse. "I don't think there's going to be an escalation this fall because Berlin is really pushing for renewed negotiations," he explained. A military offensive led by KFOR troops against the Serbs in northern Kosovo would not fit in with that picture: "Such an offensive would be disastrous because it would cause 40,000 to 50,000 people to flee. We don't want another wave of refugees and tractor convoys in 2012 or 2013."
Belgrade and Pristina have declared they are prepared for further political negotiations, but they start from very different assumptions. While Serbia wants to negotiate about the status of Kosovo, Pristina hopes to talk about ways to normalize relations between what it views as two independent states. Agreement is nowhere in sight.