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As Europe's youngest state celebrates its 10th anniversary, the country must come to grips with a decade of poor leadership and a very uncertain future

A man stands in front of a screen displaying the Kosovo flag in Pristina on Feb. 15, 2018.

Robert Austin.

Robert Austin is an Associate professor at the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

Kosovo, Europe's youngest state, turns 10 on Saturday, but its people have few reasons to celebrate. Blame for that largely goes to successive lousy governments and a corrupted predatory elite, often enabled by an international community that is more interested in stability than anything else, happy to turn a blind eye to Kosovo's obvious democratic shortcomings.

I was in Kosovo on independence day in 2008. Everybody knew it was coming. The big question was not when it would occur, but what would happen the day after.

Three things were absolutely clear to me.

One was that it was undeniable that Kosovo's independence was just: There were no other alternatives. The series of events inflicted upon the ethnic Albanians in much of the 20th century, especially after Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic entered the scene in the late 1980s, meant that Kosovo could never be part of Serbia or Yugoslavia. This became even more obvious after the forced expulsion of the Albanians in the winter and spring of 1999, just as the NATO intervention began. Plus, in the negotiations for Kosovo's final status, Serbia rarely put anything meaningful on the table, and when it did, it was usually too late to be taken seriously. (Afterward, Serbia refused to recognize Kosovo at the United Nations, where it was backed by Russia.)

The big question was not when Kosovo independence would occur, writes Robert Austin, but what would happen the day after.

Second, the ethnic Albanians wrongly assumed that independence would solve all their problems – as their politicians erroneously suggested – and lead to investment, jobs and economic prosperity.

Finally, and most depressingly, as I listened to the canned speeches of Kosovo's then-rulers, it was obvious that they were simply not up to the job. Nervous as they were, it seemed they, too, knew running a state was just not their thing. After nine years of UN administration and booming profits for politicians through corruption and state capture, independence and the rule of law that ordinary people had hoped for, might be bad for business.

In any case, Kosovo got a new and generic flag that nobody liked, a wordless (so as to avoid controversy) national anthem, a postmodern road map for statehood and a very uncertain future.

Many of Kosovo's founding rules are, regrettably, still around. A decade of on-the-job training has done little to help. Kosovo still languishes somewhere between a normal and abnormal state. Even before the 2018 celebrations began, Kosovo was receiving bad news. In late October, another country (Suriname) revoked its recognition of Kosovo. (Belgrade rejoiced while the Foreign Ministry in Kosovo said the decision was illegal.) In November, several people, including the Leader of the largest opposition party, Self-Determination, were arrested for their roles in setting off tear gas in parliament while protesting new agreements designed to normalize relations with Serbia. In December, former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader and now Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj more than doubled his salary – a decision he defended by saying he required better clothes: "I am obliged to wear a tie. I cannot go out dressed any old how. I must have a shirt." (Since nobody other than Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama actually invites the Kosovo leadership anywhere, the need for fancy clothes is not clear to me.) And in January, Kosovo's parliament moved to block a special court set up – at the insistence of the European Union and the United States – to try war crimes committed before, and after, the 1999 conflict.

Most worryingly, Oliver Ivanovic, the most prominent leader of the Serb community that lives in the north, was assassinated outside his office in Mitrovica last month. Mr. Ivanovic's murder, given the sensitive state of talks between Belgrade and Pristina, the capital, and as a key proponent of engagement with the government in Kosovo, will likely spell problems. One thing is clear: The main beneficiaries of Mr. Ivanovic's death are criminals who benefit from maintaining lawlessness in the north.

These recent setbacks are worsened by longer-term problems that have been apparent since 2008. For instance, much of the population is unemployed and living in poverty; youth unemployment is among the highest in the world; foreign direct investment, never stellar, is declining, and there is not much left to sell anyway. Kosovo imports almost everything it consumes. Remittances from an extremely generous diaspora are among the highest in Europe. Successive governments entrenched clientelism by spending money like mad on the civil service and engaging in corrupt infrastructure projects, particularly costly highway projects, that neglected Kosovo's real needs in education and health care. Albanians and Serbs alike could be forgiven for thinking the clocks had really stopped ticking. Civil unrest has only been avoided because so many people left, largely as economic migrants to the EU. A grim report card made worse given that Kosovo gets more cash per capita from the EU than any other Balkan country.

To be fair, while the governing elites are the principal culprits, the international community is not blameless. Instead of being granted independence in 1999 after the NATO intervention, Kosovo received nine years of United Nations administration. Back then, nobody could have even imagined that an interim administration would last so long, but the perks were too good to give up. The UN failed to instill a sense of accountability or respect for democracy. The international do-gooders arrived smelling money and an easy gig. The non-stop blame game between local and international officials grew tiring. As a neither-here-nor-there state – and one with no clear future – Kosovo's people succumbed to a deep existential crisis.

Pushed by the United States, which was growing tired of EU foot-dragging, the EU launched talks on Kosovo's final status (which could only end one way given U.S. insistence on independence as the only solution). In 2007, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari presented what was known as the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement. Although the plan did not formally recommend independence, in a covering letter, Mr. Ahtisaari called for a period of supervised independence under EU, not UN, supervision.

Instead of being granted independence in 1999 after the NATO intervention, Kosovo received nine years of United Nations administration.

So, 10 years ago, Kosovo went from one kind of protectorate under the UN to another kind of protectorate under the EU in the form of EULEX, a mission aimed at providing assistance in broadly conceived rule of law issues. The Ahtisaari Plan, which more or less became Kosovo's constitution, was hardly understood by anyone and almost impossible to implement given the lofty goals for multi-ethnicity and the arrival of postnationalism. The fact that the Albanian side agreed to it when it was not a particularly good deal rested on the notion that independence must be obtained at any price.

The plan was based on what people expected the world to look like in the years ahead only if liberal cosmopolitanism triumphed. But things changed dramatically – the nation state proved more resilient than some expected, and new and compelling role models emerged in the authoritarian nationalist populism of Viktor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

So, where does that leave Kosovo? The United States continues to have the most influence for obvious reasons – NATO intervention and non-stop support for independence – but never really cared what happened in the longer term. The often-freewheeling U.S. ambassadors in Pristina convinced locals that Washington was calling the shots. (What the locals failed to realize was that the ambassadors were likely getting no instructions.) The EU's inability to take the lead and really fix Kosovo is the bigger failure, though. While the United States can simply walk away, the whole idea of the EU as a transformative power is called into doubt, as the EU is on record as promising the remaining Balkan states membership. Sadly, locals have lost faith in the EU's capacity to deliver. They want to see the big fish in jail, not in power.

It seems that hope may lie with what transpires in the special court. The court was an outgrowth of accusations of KLA war crimes and the suggestion of its involvement in organ trafficking. The court is now operational and there is panic among the former warriors who dominate the political scene. Given the legacy of botched trials and widespread witness intimidation in the past, many argue that the court is a required step if Kosovo is ever to become a normal state. Its critics say it is maligning a just liberation war that seeks only to indict the KLA and is therefore by definition anti-Albanian. If the court delivers, Kosovo's moribund political scene is about to get a major shake-up.

The analytical consensus for the non-EU Balkans is that the quest for stability has taken precedence over democracy. An optimist may say that by getting the geopolitics right by normalizing regional relations first, the door is open for democracy building later. A pessimist sees state capture, massive corruption and brain drain which is very hard to reverse. Finally, the fate of the EU's enlargement policy and indeed its foreign policy does hinge on what happens in the Balkans. Failure in tiny Kosovo calls into question the whole enterprise just as much as Brexit does.