They could have been pictures from the Balkan 1990s: the burning barricades, the angry Serbs, the international soldiers standing idly by. But the photos that spread from north Kosovo this summer were decidedly present day, images of sudden violence in an area rarely thought of anymore as anything but a byword for crises gone by.
Kosovar police seized two border posts along the country’s northern boundary overnight on July 25. The operation escalated a feud with Serbia over customs stamps and control of the north. Ethnic Serbs in the area reacted with fury. Roads were blocked, a policeman was fatally shot and Serb forces were deployed to the border to keep hard-liners from crossing over.
For weeks the crisis simmered. Sabine Freizer, from the International Crisis Group, called it “the most dangerous moment” in the area since 2008, when Kosovo declared independence. The standoff also briefly threw the spotlight back onto Kosovo, a country that, three years after independence, remains deeply dysfunctional.
NATO bombs drove Serbia out of Kosovo in 1999. Twelve years later, after a similar coalition helped topple the Gadhafi regime in Libya, Kosovo stands as a reminder that, even if everything goes right, humanitarian intervention is a messy process. It can mean decades of involvement with partners who aren’t always savoury, and billions spent on projects that go nowhere. “Nation building works,” says James Dobbins, a director at the RAND centre and a former senior U.S. diplomat in the Balkans. “But the product is inevitably imperfect.”
Dobbins, an expert on Western intervention, counts Kosovo as a success. Despite occasional flare-ups, the area is mostly peaceful. But in other ways—most ways, really—Kosovo remains a basket case. The local economy produces “nothing,” says Engjellushe Morina, the executive director of the Kosovar Stability Initiative. The agricultural sector remains stillborn; the nation’s only real export is scrap metal. Official unemployment sits above 40 per cent and most families rely on remittances sent from family abroad to stay afloat. Kosovo also has Europe’s youngest population and the education system has neither the capacity nor the personnel to adequately train them. Those who do go to university rarely find decent work when they finish.
Politically, the situation is, if anything, worse. Kosovars consistently rank their country among the most corrupt in Europe. The political class is dominated by holdovers from the pre-war period, many with alleged ties to criminal groups. The prime minister, Hashim Thaci, was accused late last year of being involved in organ theft during the war in 1999. (He denies the charge.) Other senior officials have been indicted for alleged war crimes committed during the conflict. Just this month a former cabinet minister in Thaci’s government was charged with executing two Serbs during the war. “I’m so cynical about the whole thing,” says long-time Kosovo watcher Robert Austin, a project coordinator and lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. The nation-building process in Kosovo, he believes, “has been totally botched. We’ve never come up with a method, in any of these places, to actually get the people in power that should be in power.”
Kosovo’s domestic problems are many. But locally, two issues dominate: Serbia and the north. During the Yugoslav years, Kosovo’s status yo-yoed between Serbian province and semi-autonomous zone. Historically, the Serbian people consider the area holy ground. Not surprisingly, Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence. North of the Ibar River, where tens of thousands of Serbs live, the government in Belgrade still wields considerable influence, pouring in money to pay officials and fund a hospital and university.
The dispute between the two countries sucks up the political air in Kosovo. It shapes all debates and drowns out other issues. The crisis this summer began after high-level talks between the two countries broke down in July. Serbia had already blocked Kosovar goods from coming over its borders. After the talks ended, Thaci ordered a reciprocal ban. He had the border posts seized to enforce that measure.
The battles sparked by the seizure were never likely to escalate into war. Serbia has little to gain from military intervention and NATO reinforcements were quickly called in. By early September, the EU had brokered an agreement to return things to the status quo. The larger conflict, though, remains unsettled. More than a decade after the last war in the former Yugoslavia ended, the nations built from its ashes remain troubled and incomplete—none more so than Kosovo. For his part, Robert Austin worries that Kosovo is headed down the same path as Albania, one that will “end up with a really polarized and dangerous” political climate. “I wrote a lot in favour of independence” before 2008, Austin says. “But I’m pretty disappointed with the direction of events right now.”