Kosovo on Saturday celebrates 10 years since it declared independence, a moment of pride for its ethnic Albanian majority, although sovereignty remains fiercely contested by Serbia.
The capital Pristina is covered in the blue and yellow colours of the Kosovan flag for a weekend of festivities, with Kosovo-born British pop star Rita Ora due to headline a concert in the main square on Saturday night.
The singer’s family left Kosovo in 1991 to escape the repression imposed by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic after he stripped the Yugoslav province of its autonomy.
In 1998, a war broke out between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian troops that left 13,000 people dead, most of them Albanians. Belgrade withdrew its forces the following year after a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.
Kosovo subsequently became a United Nations protectorate and, with the support of Washington and other Western powers, it declared independence from Belgrade on February 17, 2008.
“The state of Kosovo has upheld the people’s demand for freedom,” Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said in a special government session in Pristina on Saturday morning.
But “we are aware that citizens’ expectations for a modern state have not yet been fulfilled”.
Although more than 110 countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence in the past 10 years, Serbia and dozens of other states have not.
Sovereignty is rejected by Russia, whose Security Council veto prevents Kosovo from joining the United Nations, and five EU countries including Spain and Greece.
– Economic woes, ethnic division –
Kosovo’s milestone is also marred by huge economic challenges. With the unemployment rate at around 30 percent — and 50 percent among young people — tens of thousands have moved abroad in search of work over the past decade.
Home to 1.8 million citizens, Kosovo is one of the poorest parts of Europe and hugely dependent on remittances from its diaspora to drive economic growth of around four percent.
“Our expectations have not been met at all,” said retired teacher Pashk Desku, 66.
“I am afraid that instead of improving, the situation could get worse,” he told AFP.
On Friday, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian schoolchildren began the day with lessons dedicated to the anniversary.
But this was not the case in the separate education system of Kosovo’s Serb minority, which remains loyal to Belgrade. The two ethnic communities rarely mix.
The “normalisation” of ties between Belgrade and Pristina is crucial to both sides’ bids to join the European Union, but Serbian officials say recognition of independence is a red line.
“Despite the great support it enjoys from Western powers, Kosovo is far, far from being recognised,” said Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic on Saturday.
“Without an agreement with Serbia, this issue cannot be solved.”
The former foes have reached deals on issues such as freedom of movement since EU-brokered talks began in 2011, but the dialogue has stalled over the past two years.
– Partition concerns –
Some officials in Belgrade have raised the prospect of redrawing Kosovo’s borders along ethnic lines. In the far north, heavily dominated by Serbs, the Kosovo flag is shunned in favour of the red, blue and white stripes of Serbia.
But Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci insists that the country is “indivisible” and many fear a partition deal would destabilise the fragile Balkans.
Ahead of the anniversary, US President Donald Trump sent his congratulations to Kosovo for making “great strides in strengthening its sovereignty and multi-ethnic democracy”.
“While more work must be done, we applaud your progress.”
Kosovo’s ties with the West have at times been strained over the past year, as it awaits the first indictments from an EU-backed war crimes court trying members of the 1990s Kosovo Liberation Army.
A number of leading KLA figures, such as Thaci, remain dominant in Kosovo and ruling coalition MPs recently attempted to block the tribunal. The move sparked strongly-worded warnings from the US and other Western allies.