Despite war, violence, and continued internal struggles, Kosovo has managed to build a functional democracy in the two decades following its independence from Serbia. Although the country’s democracy is young, it has already experienced success through free and fair elections, reform initiatives, and the participation of civil society organizations.
Nevertheless, Kosovo continues to face powerful internal and institutional challenges. As a newly independent country, Kosovo has struggled to provide for its citizens both economically and institutionally through the judicial system and political apparatuses. Poverty and unemployment rates remain high, and many Kosovans face difficulties accessing public services. For example, the average unemployment rate in the European Union is 6.1%, while the unemployment rate in Kosovo is 16.6%. On top of this, Kosovo is only recognized by around 100 countries worldwide. The lack of international recognition doesn’t just have an effect on their perception; it also has affected their ability to participate in trade and travel freely. The European Parliament only approved visa liberalization in the past month, and the decision won’t go into effect until 2024.
Such challenges are, in some ways, familiar; Kosovo, as a part of the Balkans, has long been plagued with conflict. For centuries, the Balkan region served as a borderland between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottoman Empire fell, Kosovo was under the control of Serbia and eventually became part of Yugoslavia, which started as a Serbian-dominated monarchy and transformed into a multiethnic communist state following WWII. Needless to say, the region has long been defined by conflict, tumult, and authoritarian forms of government. Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have been particularly violent since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but the conflict goes back much further. The Battle of the Blackbirds, which took place in Kosovo in 1389, was portrayed by Serbian nationalists as an important part of Serbian history and the case for Serbia’s continued control of Kosovo.
The region is also demographically diverse in terms of religion, which is of specific importance in the context of Kosovo and Serbia. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism globally, Yugoslavia started to fracture. As the federation split apart and ethnic violence broke out, the conflict became most violent in Bosnia, where Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia were all vying for parts of the country. Serbian forces ultimately committed ethnic cleansing and genocide against Bosnian Muslim populations, which was only stopped due to NATO intervention. In 1999, tensions were rising in Kosovo, a majority ethnic Albanian Muslim region, between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian government. The conflict resulted in major violence against Kosovar Albanians, and many were forced to flee to neighboring countries in search of refuge until NATO intervened and expelled Serbian forces after a lengthy air campaign.
In the aftermath of the war, Kosovo was able to start exercising self-governance. In light of a lack of regional history of democracy and intense violence and conflict, Kosovo’s democracy has done quite well. An area in which they have succeeded is in holding free and fair elections, something that many developing democracies struggle with. In 2021, snap elections were held after the Constitutional Court ruled that the previous election in 2020 was illegal because Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, had committed a crime years prior. In spite of this, Kurti’s nationalist party, Vetëvendosje, was elected in a landslide victory, and Kurti was reappointed as Prime Minister. The election, which was deemed to be free and fair, can be seen as a success for Kosovo’s democracy and as a representation of their desires for future political development. Many Kosovars showed up at the polls, with a participation rate of 48%, the highest it has been since 2004. Voters showed a desire for Kurti’s anti-corruption, reformist agenda that aligned with democratic principles. Additionally, the election showed an advancement in female representation in government, with Vjosa Osmani having been elected as president.
Despite some successes, Kosovo still struggles with institutional operations and providing for its citizens. Around 23% of Kosovo’s population lives in poverty. Programs like pensions and monetary and social assistance would help to protect the country’s most vulnerable and contribute to future economic development by reinvesting in the Kosovar youth. One of Kosovo’s main social service programs is the Social Assistance Scheme (SAS), the only program that targets poverty reduction. The SAS has facilitated some reduction in the poverty and inequality rates, but overall its salience is declining. Less than 40% of poor Kosovars receive benefits, as opposed to neighboring countries like Romania or Croatia which have other social assistance programs to supplement gaps in coverage. Before 2008, SAS offered slightly above-average benefits than similar programs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In response to the financial crisis, many programs increased their benefits while Kosovo’s stayed stagnant, setting it back in progress. In order to move forward and advance the economy, Kosovo must invest in and develop social services and infrastructure.
Though Kosovo has made some strides in economic liberalization in past years, the economy is still one of its main problems. Kosovo managed to outperform its neighbors, but the growth hasn’t been enough to counteract widespread poverty and unemployment. The economy is heavily dependent on remittances from the diaspora and has struggled to improve its own capacity for development and exportation. Kosovo is also an underperformer when it comes to EU countries; their GDP per capita is one-fourth that of the EU average, and they spend less than half of what EU countries spend on education and social services on average. COVID-19 didn’t help, either–Kosovo’s economy experienced a 6.9% contraction, increasing the vulnerability of the informal workforce and disproportionately affecting people without social assistance benefits.
Like many other countries within the region and across the globe, Kosovo struggles with corruption. In the most recent elections, citizens showed strong support for a government that would follow an anti-corruption agenda, setting high expectations for Kurti and his administration. Though Kosovo has made some beginning strides in tackling corruption, it is still a widespread issue that Kosovo lacks the proper institutional frameworks to stop. From there, corruption further erodes the lack of proper social services offered to citizens and creates a deeper distrust of the government. Corruption also heavily impacts the lives of ordinary citizens. About 9.4% of adults in Kosovo have had an experience relating to the bribery of a public official, which can be partially attributed to the inefficiency and shortcomings of public service organizations.
Kosovo is not yet a robust democracy, but the people fought long and hard to gain independence from Serbia and exercise self-governance. However, fifteen years later, Kosovo and Serbia still struggle to reconcile their differences on many issues. Though the two have been involved in peace talks recently, the Serbian government remains committed to asserting that Kosovo is not an independent nation. While Kosovo maintains a strong relationship with the United States, NATO, and the EU, Serbia has found a steadfast and dangerous ally in Russia.
Beyond Serbia and the Balkans, Russia has been eager to take down an ally of the United States that it does not view as legitimate. In addition to an existing lack of recognition, Russia has used its position on the UN Security Council to block Kosovo from being able to become a recognized member. In return, the Russian state-controlled oil giant was given 51% of Serbia’s oil monopoly, giving Russia a unique position of economic interest in the Kosovo-Serbia conflict. Along with Russia’s position on the UN Security Council, it has shown complete disregard for the independence of certain countries. The Kremlin has taken concrete action in multiple countries to interfere with their democracy, elections, and sovereignty. With the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s bond with Serbia creates concern for the future of Kosovo’s democracy. With Russia’s complete lack of regard for international sovereignty, nothing good can come out of this partnership for Kosovo.
In a region plagued with conflict and corruption, it is vital that Kosovo’s democracy continues to grow and that its independence remains. If Kosovo can continue to develop and diversify its economy and strengthen its public institutions as well as its ability to provide social services, its continued struggle for independence and recognition will be all the better for it.
Featured Image Source: DW