David Smith
David Smith

The birth of a country

“We are proud, independent and free. Today ends all delusions that Kosovo will ever be ruled by Belgrade. We are the last bit to symbolise the disintegration of Yugoslavia.” — Declaration of independence by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci on February 17 2008

There’s nothing like a new country to inspire writing.

Yet another little corner of the former Yugoslavia has been carved off from the land that Tito built. I’m writing from the brand-new Republic of Kosovo. This rebel territory may no longer be ruled by Belgrade, but it’s still very much a part of the Balkans — I have to close my windows and use ear plugs to keep down the noise from all the celebratory gunfire outside my room. Gunfire is the Balkan soundtrack in good times as well as bad.

A few minutes ago, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci addressed a special session of Parliament here in the capital, Pristina, where he read a declaration officially declaring independence. Without missing a beat, his Serbian counterpart, Vojislav Kostunica, read out a declaration in Parliament in Belgrade saying that Serbia will never accept Kosovo’s independence. No surprises there. Serbia has always viewed Kosovo as an integral part of its territory.

Whatever long faces are being pulled in Serbia, Kosovo is in the throws of the biggest party this part of the world has ever seen. A two-day national holiday has been declared for Monday and Tuesday, and most people are likely to need those days to nurse hangovers that have been fed with the local beer and brandy for more than two days now.

It’s a bit odd to walk through the crowded streets of Pristina where revellers are waving hundreds of Albanian and American flags. A new flag for Kosovo is only being voted on today. Since 1999, when Nato bombing removed the Serbian army from Kosovo, the de facto flag has been that of neighbouring Albania. Then US president Bill Clinton defied the UN at the time to enable Nato to attack. Clinton and the US in general have hero status among Kosovo Albanians. I don’t recall ever seeing complimentary graffiti about the US outside that country’s borders. Here it is abundant.

While most of this new country is in a festive mood, there are small patches scattered around Kosovo where the mood is one of deep depression. Serb enclaves, holding about 10% of Kosovo’s population, had been hoping that this day would never arrive. Integration has for the most part not been strong. If ever a country needed a reconciliation commission, it is this one. Sadly there don’t appear to be any obvious Desmond Tutus or Nelson Mandelas on the horizon.

In his short declaration of independence, however, Thaci stressed several times Kosovo’s intention to protect minorities by guaranteeing them the same rights as the majority ethnic Albanians. Minorities in local speak generally means Serbs, although there are other smaller minority groups.

The Serbs, both here and in Serbia proper, are hoping that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has some sort of rescue plan in mind. Putin has already told the UN not to recognise Kosovo independence. Moscow has close relations with its Southern Slav cousins and, perhaps more importantly, worries what sort of message an independent Kosovo sends to the autonomous regions in Russia that want independence, notably Chechnya.

There are also a number of African leaders who are not likely to be celebrating Kosovo’s joy. The Moroccan king has been massaging UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara for years in his full-time attempt to consolidate his hold over the territory. Senegal’s president is not likely to refer to Kosovo and his rebel southern region of Casamance in the same breath. Belgians, Canadians, Indonesians and Indians are also likely to wonder how Kosovo’s political success can have ramifications for separatist movements within their own territories.

These international concerns, however, are for another day. Today is, for the most part, a day of extreme joy in Kosovo. It’s the kind of day that doesn’t happen often here. Kosovo has a staggering unemployment rate of more than 40%. The infrastructure needs rebuilding and the electricity supply is much more erratic than in South Africa during the worst of load-shedding. The people here are confident that independence will lead to investment, jobs and prosperity.

Where there is optimism there is hope.