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Kosovo celebrates 15 years of independence

Anila Shuka | Rüdiger Rossig
February 18, 2023

The Republic of Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, but Serbia continues to block international recognition of the country's autonomy– with support from China and Russia.

Celebrations as Kosovo wins independence
A girl waves a Kosovo flag at a demonstration celebrating the first anniversary of the country's independenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Geographically speaking, Kosovo is a region in southeastern Europe located in the center of the Balkan Peninsula. It borders Serbia to the north and northeast, North Macedonia to the southeast, Albania to the southwest, and Montenegro to the west.

Like its neighbors, Kosovo's population is ethnically diverse. The largest group among the approximately 1.9 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, who make up about 90% of the population. Serbs make up about five percent of the citizenry, while the others are members of minorities such as Roma, Bosniaks and Turks. Most people in Kosovo are Muslim, but Orthodox Christians and Catholics have a presence there as well.

Kosovo belonged to the Ottoman Empire for many centuries until it was conquered by troops from the Kingdom of Serbia in 1913. At the end of World War I, the Serbian monarchy was absorbed into the Kingdom of Serbs, State of Slovenes (SHS), which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

During World War II, Kosovo was annexed to Italian-controlled Albania following the occupation of Yugoslavia by Nazi Germany, Mussolini's fascist Italy and their allies. After the victory of the Yugoslav partisans under the communist Josip Broz Tito in 1944 and 1945, Yugoslavia was transformed into a socialist federation, and Kosovo received the status of an autonomous province within the Serbian republic.

What triggered the conflict between Kosovo and Yugoslavia or Serbia?

In 1989, the then head of the Serbian Communists, Slobodan Milosevic, ousted Kosovo's majority-Albanian government and Kosovo's autonomy was revoked. His infamous June 1989 speech in Kosovo Polje is regarded as the beginning of the warlike disintegration of Yugoslavia. Two years before the fighting in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina began in 1991-92, Albanian civil servants were dismissed in Kosovo, and instruction in schools and at universities was held only in Serbian.

Serbian politician and Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic on trial for war crimes at the Hague
Serbian politician and Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic on trial for war crimes at the HagueImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Ernst

The Albanian majority reacted with nonviolent resistance for a long time. After 1989, most of the remaining Albanian officials left the now Serb-dominated state institutions and proclaimed their own republic in 1992. Under the leadership of the writer and pacifist Ibrahim Rugova, a shadow state was established with its own government and administration.

What was the shadow Republic of Kosovo and how did the Serbian state respond to it?

One of the most important tasks of the shadow state was educating Albanian children, who were taught in Albanian in private homes. The Kosova Albanian "diaspora" — Albanians living abroad — financed the underground state through donations.

Ibrahim Rugova with lung cancer at a hospital
Ibrahim Rugova was a prominent political leader who served as Kosovo's president until his death in 2006Image: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

At the same time, the regime in Serbia's capital Belgrade became increasingly repressive. Albanians in Kosovo were subjected to baseless arrests with increasing frequency. As a result, many saw Rugova's policy of pacifist resistance as a failure. In 1994, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) was founded, which began to appear with guerrilla actions in 1996.

What caused the Kosovo War? 

In 1997, the UÇK began attacking police stations and other facilities of the Serbian state in Kosovo. The international community attempted to calm the situation with an OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) mission in the fall of 1998. But Serbian security forces continued to massacre civilians despite the presence of international observers.

A man holds a child in his arms while fleeing from the Serbian security forces in 1999
Kosovo-Albanians fled from Serbian security forces in 1999Image: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Gouliamaki

After the final failure of diplomatic talks between representatives of Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians in Rambouillet, France, NATO air strikes began on March 24, 1999, against what was then Yugoslavia, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro. The political goal was to prevent a genocide like the one that had taken place in Srebrenica in August 1995. As part of the fighting, more than a million people fled Kosovo, mainly to Albania and what was then Macedonia.

How did Kosovo's independence come about?

In June 1999, Milosevic finally gave up and withdrew his troops from Kosovo. Since then, the NATO-led multilateral peacekeeping force KFOR (Kosovo Force) has been securing the peace. Politically, Kosovo was placed under the administration of the United Nations (UNMIK).

Members of the NATO led Kosovo Force (KFOR) in December 2022 patrol the border to Serbia
Members of the NATO led Kosovo Force (KFOR) in December 2022 on the border to SerbiaImage: Marjan Vucetic/AP Photo/picture alliance

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence after an attempt at mediation by UN envoy and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari failed. In the process, the concept for which Ahtisaari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 was adopted, according to which Kosovo is a multiethnic state and a fixed number of seats in Kosova's parliament are reserved for Serbians and other ethnic minorities.

Which countries have recognized the independence of the Republic of Kosovo?

To date, 117 countries have recognized the independence of the Republic of Kosovo, including the United States and most EU member states. Serbia, Russia, China, and some other states, on the other hand, continue to view Kosovo as part of Serbia. Five EU states  — Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Cyprus — have also so far refused to recognize Europe's newest state.

Anerkennung Kosovo Graffiti auf einer Mauer in den Ostteil der Stadt Gnjilane NO FLASH
Graffiti on a wall in a city Gjilan in Kosovo in 2008 expresses gratitude after the country won independenceImage: AP

According to a legal opinion issued by the International Court of Justice ICJ in 2010, Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence did not violate international law. The opinion had been commissioned by the UN to clarify whether Kosovo's secession from Serbia was legal. The ICJ's ruling is not binding, but it represents an important political and diplomatic recognition for Kosovo.

To which international organizations does Kosovo now belong?

Due to the veto of UN Security Council members Russia and China, Kosovo cannot become a full member of the United Nations. However, the republic is a member of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and some international sports organizations, such as the IOC, FIFA and UEFA. Currently, the government in the capital Pristina is seeking membership in the Council of Europe. In 2022, an application for candidate status in the European Union was submitted. A Stabilization and Association agreement was signed with the EU back in 2015.

Where do dialogue and normalization with Serbia stand?

Since 2012, the EU has been working to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. These are crucial for EU membership, which both countries are seeking. Serbia has been a candidate since 2012, and Kosovo applied for membership at the end of 2022. Under EU mediation, Kosovo and Serbia signed a number of agreements between 2013-2015 that address important day-to-day issues, including telecommunications, border issues, missing persons, and energy supplies. But tensions stemming from Serbia's failure to recognize Kosovo as a state continue to stall talks.

What is the Franco-German plan?

A proposal by Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz and France's President Emmanuel Macron, which is also supported by the United States and is now considered an official EU proposal, brought new hope in September 2022. Under the Franco-German proposal, Serbia need not formally recognize Kosovo, but would respect its independence and not prevent Kosovo's membership in international organizations — analogous to the Federal Republic's relationship with East Germany under the 1973 Basic Treaty. In return, Pristina would accept an Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo.

What is the Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo?

The Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo is a kind of umbrella organization that takes care of the concerns of Serbs in the ten municipalities with a Serb majority.

The Kosovo leadership rejects this proposal, on the grounds that it would create a Serb parallel structure within the country. According to the Albanians, this would threaten Kosovo's stability in a similar way to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

Serbia, on the other hand, has made the implementation of the municipal union a condition for further concessions. However, both sides are under pressure, especially since Russia's attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Since then, the West has been in an even bigger hurry to make progress, at least in the Western Balkans, not least because Moscow is trying hard to gain influence in the region.

This article was translated from German.