Kosovo’s Rocky Road to Reconstruction – and the International Community’s Responsibility

Author’s Note: In this article, I will refer to Kosovo as a state, although with recognition that this is a contested term.


Kosovo, the disputed multi-ethnic territory of two million in the Central Balkans, first declared its independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. Sixteen years later, after a bitter war between Serbia and the Kosovaars who sought independence, the state again declared independence. The Kosovo War in 1998 and 1999 saw 11,000 Kosovo-Albanians killed, along with several thousand Serbs, and the rape of over 20,000 women. Even today, over 1,000 people are still missing in Kosovo. NATO’s intervention in 1999 saw relative peace return to the region and, in the following years, a veritable flood of international agencies and NGOs involved in Kosovo’s reconstruction efforts. But how effective have they been? After nearly two decades, why are some international agencies still omnipresent in the state? And what questions does this raise about the efficacy of UN and EU intervention and state-building protocol in the region?

Image courtesy of RonnyK via Pixabay, 2018. Some rights reserved.

United Nations Mission in Kosovo’s (UNMIK) administration of the new state ended in 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence. UNMIK, by this time, was widely unpopular amongst the public in Kosovo, seen as interfering without engaging with the general population and backing up a political elite. From 2008 began a period of ‘supervised independence’, a gradual draw back of NATO’s Kosovo Force (K-FOR), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), among others, allowing for Kosovo’s economy, and political, judicial and law enforcement institutions to build to full capacity and capability on their own.


Success in state-building in a post-conflict country depends arguably upon several criteria: improvements in inter-group relations; a widely accepted, coherent national identity; independence and capability of state functions; economic development; and international recognition of the state in question. As well as international recognition being a component of successful state-building, membership of international agencies depends to a large extent on the previous four achievements. How far, then, have these criteria been fulfilled in the international efforts to state-build in Kosovo?



Certainly, the devastating ethnic violence of the late 1990s has ceased, in no small part thanks to the NATO intervention. Yet, what has replaced it is a deeply divided society. The 5-6% of the population of Kosovo that is ethnically Serbian is clustered together in small enclaves so that the four northern municipalities of Kosovo, although administered now by the national government, for many years were Serbian controlled. The town of Mitrovice in the north of the country is a case in point: a NATO-manned bridge divides the Kosovar-majority neighbourhoods and the Serb-dominated northern suburbs. Barricades at either end of the bridge prevent cars crossing and streets in the north of the city are lined with Serbian flags, making the area uninviting for Kosovaars.


On a national level, improvements in Kosovo-Serb relations have seen some, halting development. The Brussels Dialogue between the two states began technical negotiations in 2011, with politics negotiations from 2013 something of a triumph: return of Kosovo’s civil registries, co-operation on border management and four crime-ridden, Serb-majority and Serb-controlled municipalities returned to Kosovo’s legal and judicial control. Nevertheless, the negotiations are viewed as illegitimate by the general Serbian public; Kosovo, to them, is still a province of their state. Likewise, Kosovaars are awaiting an official apology for what they see as the ethnic cleansing of their country. Without popular support, peace-building from the top down is unlikely to enjoy much, if any, long-term success.



To walk the streets of Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, one could be forgiven for thinking the flag of Kosovo is a black eagle on a red background – the flag of neighbouring Albanian. Besides the government buildings, the official flag of Kosovo – a yellow outline of the state, under six yellow stars, on a blue background – is near invisible. The flag itself was proposed to the state by the international community, and it is easy to see the resemblance to the 28-starred flag of the European Union. The six stars are attractively symbolic, representative of the six ethnic minorities that Kosovo identifies in its Constitution. Nevertheless, the flag – like the wordless national anthem (how to choose between the two official languages, Albanian and Serbian?) and the Constitution – were gifted upon Kosovo from her international allies, and seem to strike little chord with the general population.



The OSCE first arrived in Kosovo in 1992, and since that time, at least once international agency has been present in the country. Undoubtedly, Kosovo would not be at the point that it now is without their assistance: OSCE and EULEX have both been committed to anti-corruption and transparency within Kosovo institutions. Yet these national institutions cannot be called independent. In 2014, a scandal involving the extension of the mandate of three international judges sitting on the Constitutional Court revealed that EULEX had put pressure on the then-President to renew their mandate without consulting – as the Constitution stipulates – the elected Assembly of Kosovo.


UNMIK was unpopular throughout its administration of the country, for its apparent unwillingness to meaningfully involve the people of Kosovo in its institution-building efforts. It is no surprise, therefore, that Kosovo’s populist party, Vetëvendosje, that gained ground in the most recent election in June ran on promises to curb international intervention and regain self-governance. UNMIK left Kosovo in 2008, the OSCE and EULEX is committed to a phasing out of its operations in Kosovo. Whether significant attention has been paid to the functionality, capability and resilience of Kosovo’s institutions as they leave is another question.



Kosovo’s economy is in a poor state. The average monthly wage in the capital of Prishtina is under €500 – a wage that is not matched by similarly low living costs. With a population of an average age of 27, youth unemployment stands at a whopping 56%. Kosovo undoubtedly has the goods to export – coal, mineral ore and a multi-lingual, tech-savvy workforce – but customs restrictions and visa constraints limit their opportunity to do so. Perhaps it is unfair to expect that the economy of a country less than 10 years into its independence should stand on its own to rival the European markets. Kosovo has, however, seen greater international investment since 2000 than its neighbours, yet its economy still languishes beside other Western Balkan nations with similar populations, such as Macedonia (see chart, based on World Bank data).




At present, 114 of 198 UN member states recognise Kosovo as an independent state, although Russia and China, as permanent members of the Security Council, do not rank amongst this number. Kosovo is a member of FIFA, the IMF, the World Bank, and sent athletes to the Rio Olympics in 2016. Within the European Union, 23 of 28 member states recognise Kosovo. Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania, because of their own secessionist struggles, refuse to acknowledge Kosovo’s statehood.


As with all other EU integration processes, Kosovo must fulfil certain criteria: a strength of democratic, legal, judicial institutions; a market economy that can compete within the EU’s common market; a commitment to the political, economic and diplomatic relations of the European Union. In addition to this, both Serbia and Kosovo are subject to additional requirements in the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, including a normalisation of relations between the two geo-political entities. There remains, however, the question of what ‘normalisation’ might mean in the Balkan context. Kosovo will maintain that this involves recognition; Serbia will likely continue to refuse this. Serbia’s integration into the EU has been predicted within the next 5-10 years; it cannot be allowed to join—and become another staunch non-recogniser—before the normalisation process in the Balkans is defined and codified.


Over 90% of Kosovo’s population support EU membership – an enviable consensus in post-Brexit Britain. Its economy is floundering without free movement of goods and labour, its security is wavering, and public trust in the integrity of its institutions is weak. The standards to which EU countries are held would ensure the continued scrupulousness of Kosovo’s institutions after EULEX and others pull out.



Assessing the efficacy of state building in Kosovo against these five criteria reveals the extent to which efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The recent history of Kosovo, however, makes many of these standards unrealistic. Integration and untroubled co-existence might be too much to expect less than two decades after mass atrocities were committed on both sides. Equally, Kosovo’s national identity may be perceived as artificial, but it is no easy task to form a nationality that is multi-ethnic in the aftermath of an ethnic conflict, while groups are still so ghettoised. There has been a long and uneven process of phasing out international intervention, but entities like the OSCE and EULEX still cannot simply vanish overnight. Economic development and international recognition are linked, and a stalemate on both counts will continue for as long as non-recognisers in the EU and the UN hold out on diplomatic or economic relations with Kosovo. A delicate balanced must, therefore, be struck between expectations for progress that are unrealistic in the context of Kosovo’s history and culture whilst still taking steps to ensure a steady development towards capable, functioning statehood.



This article is based on a two-week study programme in Prishtina, Kosovo, by the Kosovo Center of Diplomacy, and in particular seminars given by Alejtin Breisha (Universum College), Jan Brathu (OSCE), Petrit Selimi (Former Foreign Minister), Remzije Istrefi (University of Prishtina), Aidan Hehir (University of Westminster), Tienmu Ma (Ombudsperson Institution), Per Strand Sjaastad (Norwegian Ambassador to Kosovo), Adrian Zeqiri (European Centre for Minority Issues) and Alexandra Papadopoulous (EULEX).