By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Kosovo has marked a decade of independence from Serbia with a weekend of events capped off with a parade of security forces through the capital, Pristina, on February 18.
President Hashim Thaci presided over the parade, which was observed by guests from Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Croatia, and other countries.
On February 17, Thaci told the Munich Security Conference that he laments the European Union’s lack of unity over Kosovo’s status as an EU membership candidate.
Thaci told the conference that “we are not yet a member of the United Nations, while our journey to the EU is far too complicated.”
Five of the 28 EU member states have not recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
Thaci told the Munich conference that “if there were unity in the EU for Kosovo…I’m convinced that the state of Kosovo would be a more sustainable and stable country.”
Earlier on February 17, at a special government session in Pristina, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj declared that “the state of Kosovo has upheld the people’s demand for freedom.”
The United States congratulated Kosovo, which is now recognized by 116 countries, while leaders in Belgrade issued pointed reminders that Serbia is not among them.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson late on February 16 praised Kosovo for “maturing into a more stable, democratic, and inclusive country.”
“The United States continues to support Kosovo’s citizens as they work to strengthen democratic and multiethnic institutions, increase economic growth, and bolster the rule of law on the path toward full integration in the international community,” Tillerson said.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia nine years after NATO’s 78-day bombing in 1999 halted a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in what was then a province of Serbia.
“It was the happiest moment for all of us as a people,” Thaci said in a February 16 statement about Pristina’s declaration of independence.
The capital of Pristina was decked out in blue-and-yellow Kosovar flags for the weekend of celebrations, which featured a February 17 concert by Pristina-born British pop star Rita Ora before thousands in the city’s main square.
“It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and I think it’s just a start of an ongoing incredible journey for our country,” said the 27-year-old singer, whose family fled Kosovo in 1991 to escape repression by then-Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic after he stripped Kosovo of its autonomy.
Kosovo has made great strides over the past decade.
Barbados on February 15 became the latest out of 116 countries that recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.
Pristina has signed an agreement with the European Union, the first step toward membership one day. Kosovo also belongs to some 200 international organizations.
But its sovereignty is still rejected by five EU countries, including Spain and Greece, as well as by Serbia and by Russia, whose UN Security Council veto prevents Kosovo from becoming a full member of the United Nations.
Kosovo also faces other big challenges.
Crime and corruption are rampant. Unemployment is high in this country of 1.3 million people, a vast majority of them ethnic Albanians.
The minority Serbs, who were the territory’s politically dominant ethnicity before the 1998-99 Kosovo war, live in enclaves.
Although people generally are no longer physically attacked for entering a different ethnic area, tension can be easily sparked. Some 4,500 NATO-led peacekeepers are still stationed in Kosovo to ensure security.
Serbia has rejected Kosovo’s statehood, but is pressed by the West to compromise with ethnic Albanians on “good neighborly relations” or jeopardize Serbia’s prospects of joining the EU.
Serbian officials say recognition of Kosovo’s independence is a red line they are not ready to cross.
“Despite the great support it enjoys from Western powers, Kosovo is far, far from being recognized,” Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said on February 17. “Without an agreement with Serbia, this issue cannot be solved.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Reuters on February 16 that any decision on recognizing Kosovo’s independence would have to be put before Serbian voters, many of whom consider Kosovo the cradle of their Orthodox Christian faith.
The people would decide,” Vucic said, but he said he doubts voters would approve full recognition of their Balkan neighbor.
“We have to look at today’s reality and to understand relations in the world and relations in Kosovo and to understand that [Kosovo] is not ours as we taught ourselves, but neither is it theirs as they try to show it,” Vucic told Reuters.