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Religion and Society

Kosovo: taking stock after one year of independence

Engelbert Zefaj

The first anniversary of Kosovo's independence from Serbia, on 17 February, was a day of great rejoicing throughout the country. People of all ages, young and old, filled the streets to celebrate the historic event, waving all sorts of flags, those of Albania and Kosovo of course, but also those of the United States, the European Union and NATO.

 

Central and local government institutions sponsored a number of public events, with the participation of the ambassadors of countries represented in Kosovo as well as envoys of other countries and international organisations like ICO, EULEX and OEDC.

 

Kosovars took part in the revelry, forgetting for a day the grave challenges they face the other days of the year like inadequate health care, unemployment, social problems, limited educational opportunities, etc.

 

Every ethnic group joined in, except Serbs. Rom, Ashkali, Egyptians, Turks and Bosniaks joyfully showed the Kosovo flag in the streets and from the windows of their homes.

 

Only in Mitrovica (northern Kosovo), north of the Ibar River, did Serbs organise a protest, led by a number of Serbian MPs, about 40 of them, who met in the city on 17 February together with municipal leaders from the Serbian side in order to adopt a resolution against Kosovo independence, a step Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić had already announced, coupled with a warning of possible riots and clashes.

 

The people of Kosovo did not take the bait; instead it celebrated happily and in good order the anniversary without any outbreak of violence.

 

The anniversary did mark the end though of a difficult year for the country, a year during which various groups protested against the difficult socio-economic situation, including some non-governmental organisations, and trade unions, who demanded higher wages.

 

More radical opposition parties have protested against the existing type of independence, calling for Kosovo institutions to extend their jurisdiction throughout Kosovo, except for northern Mitrovica and a section of the south.

 

In the past year Serbia has carried out an aggressive diplomatic offensive in order to hold together the group of countries that do not recognise an independent Kosovo and have Kosovo independence declared a violation of international law. Belgrade is basing its action on local Serbs' boycott of Kosovo institutions and their rejection of offers of cooperation and employment the latter have made.

 

International organisations like ICO, EULEX and OEDC continue to supervise the Kosovo government, which has been accused of corruption and failure to respect democratic principles. All this is being used by opposition forces who want early elections.

 

Independence has never the less brought some positive changes to the country's system of higher education as universities raise their standards to meet those of Europe. Both public and private universities have had in fact to get accreditation, forcing some to close until further notice.

 

But uncertainty is taking its toll on students who find themselves without the right degree. Many have stopped studying altogether, whilst others languish without job prospects or hope in the country's future.

 

Internal institutional reorganisation is also continuing, amid many difficulties; so are Kosovo's efforts on the diplomatic front, including that of becoming a member of the United Nations.

 

The economic situation is bad. The privatisation of many companies, something hailed by locals as a panacea, has not yet born fruit. Many factories have closed because of lack of financing. Investors who bought up property have not created many jobs. Unemployment is up and social problems got worse.

 

Many of the questions the new state faces have not found an answer. It is impossible to export to countries that do not recognise Kosovo's independence. The country's pension fund lost a lot from its investments; energy is scarce; and local infrastructures leave a lot to be desired.

 

The government is getting involved across the board in a variety of development plans. These include restructuring the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK), with the building of a new power plant and distribution grid, rebuilding the main roads and upgrading the education and health care systems.

 

Plans to that effect were presented to a donors' conference held last summer. Many developed countries promised help to the tune of € 1.4 billion. We can thus hope.

 

On the downside, after a year of independence no positive step has been taken in inter-faith coexistence. Things actually got worse. Relations between Catholics and Muslims, who used to be close, are now considerably cooler. This is partly due to the increasingly invasive presence of representatives of Wahhabi Islam in the decision-making institutions of the Muslim community.

 

Kosovo's constitution clearly recognises the separation of state and religion, something that has not gone down all that well among Kosovo Muslims, who are the overwhelming majority.

 

By contrast, Catholics have been in favour of this separation because they see it as a guarantee of their existence and freedom. Indeed they have benefited the most from independence because it was not easy for them to live under Communism or the Milošević regime.

 

Orthodox Christians have instead completely ignored the latest developments because of their opposition to Kosovo independence. But in doing so, they have excluded themselves from any broader debate.

 

By and large religious groups have stood on the sidelines over the past year, holding their peace. Although they have participated in activities organised by the country's institutions when invited, they have also kept delicate political issues at arm's length.

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