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Independent Kosovo Prepares To Mark First Anniversary

The "NEWBORN" monument in Pristina marks the day Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008.

The "NEWBORN" monument in Pristina marks the day Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008.

SLLOVI, Kosovo (RFE/RL) -- With his newborn state on the eve of its first anniversary, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci made a symbolic trip to the tiny village of Sllovi, not far from the capital, Pristina.

There, he visited a baby girl, Pavaresia, whose name means "independence" in Albanian. She, like her country, was born on February 17, 2008.

Thaci urged his fellow citizens to join in celebrating Kosovo's first year as an independent state.

"I call upon all the citizens of Kosovo, regardless of their ethnicity, to celebrate with dignity and pride. It is a year of historical success for Kosovo," Thaci said.

"Kosovo has a safe future; therefore we should celebrate with dignity and be proud. We will have a state protocol of the highest level, but we will also have a big celebration for all our citizens."

After years as a Serbian province and international protectorate, Albanian-majority Kosovo unilaterally declared independence a year ago amid support from the Western community.

The move outraged officials in Belgrade, and threatened to send waves unrest through the fledgling country, particularly in North Mitrovica and other Serbian-majority enclaves.

A year later, however, Kosovo is still standing.

The country has a new constitution, a national anthem, an army, and a flag. A European law-and-order mission has successfully assumed control from the United Nations. There have been no major outbreaks of violence.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Stewart Jones says it has been a year of "tremendous hard work and achievement."

"Both the government and the people of Kosovo have much to be proud of. The new constitution, dozens of new laws, hundreds of kilometers of new roads, dozens of new schools," Jones says. "Everywhere you look in Pristina -- and I just visited a couple of weeks ago -- you can see manifestations of progress."

Glass Half-Full...

But much work remains. Corruption and crime are rife in the tiny country. Unemployment hovers above 40 percent. And the country's Serbs, supported by Belgrade, have largely refused to acknowledge Kosovo's newly unified institutions, threatening to create a de facto partition of the country.

Kosovo has also been slow to gain international credibility. In the early days of independence, Thaci predicted no fewer than 100 countries would step forward to recognize Kosovo in its first year of existence.

Today, that number is just 54. Some of the holdouts -- Serbia, Russia -- were expected. Others -- like five of the European Union's 27 members, hoping to prevent similar independence aims among their own ethnic minorities -- were disappointing.

On the streets of the capital Pristina, however, residents like Aziz Sefedini take a glass-half-full view of Kosovo's first year of statehood.

"This is a big celebration for us, for all citizens of Kosovo. We've achieved great things, but there's still a lot of work to be done," he says. "The biggest challenge for Kosovo and its institutions is the work that needs to be done on the economy."

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has urged Kosovars to look to the future.
Kosovo has received billions of dollars of aid in the years since becoming a UN protectorate in 1999. But a lack of infrastructure has hampered efforts in the past year to bring in much-needed foreign investment.

Qualified employees such as university professors still earn as little as $550 a month, and the country is suffering from massive energy shortages.

Now there are fears the global economic crisis may push tiny Kosovo and its development goals off the radar for years to come. Some Pristina residents, like Arsim Selamixhiqi say the government has failed to act in Kosovo's interest.

"Even if there's been some change, it's been very little," Selamixhiqi says. "Only some of the streets have been repaired, unemployment is very high, corruption is on the rise, and let's not even talk about crime. I don't see any change."

Still other ethnic Albanians worry about mounting unrest in the north. European officials have called on Serbian leaders in the northern section of the divided city of Mitrovica to work together with Pristina officials on a unified rule of law and government institutions.

...Or Half-Empty?

But Mitrovica's Serbs -- with backing from Belgrade -- continue to operate in a self-imposed administrative bubble, with their own municipal administration, courts, and police patrols.

As if to underscore the point, Serbia's parliament will mark the February 17 Kosovo anniversary by holding a session in North Mitrovica. Some observers worry tomorrow's Serbian parliamentary session could spark violence.

Many of Kosovo's Serbs complain their lives have been upended by last year's independence declaration, and that they are affected more than the Albanian majority by the country's mounting poverty.

Kosovo's Serbs have rejected independence.
Momcilo Ilic is an ethnic Serb who for the past 10 years has been living in Brezovica, a mountain city in the Strpce region that has traditionally been home to a mix of Serbs and Albanians.

He says his family now has to fight to defend its right to remain in the area that has been home for more than a decade.

Ilic says that as a Serb, "independence isn't something that happened to me. Instead, we've been dealing with displacement, a lack of documents, trying to get our property back, and the issues of everyday life. The situation just gets worse, day after day."

Security remains tight in Kosovo a year after independence. More than 15,000 NATO peacekeepers brought in following the 1998-99 war remain in place. And Europe's 2,000-member EULEX mission includes police officers, although many have not been able to fully deploy in the north.

The European Parliament has also adopted a resolution urging the five EU countries -- Romania, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, and Spain -- that have yet to recognize Kosovo to do so. The gesture is seen as vital as EULEX prepares to assume full responsibility from the UN mission still operating in parts of the country.

Pieter Feith, the EU's envoy to Kosovo, has called on Serbia to ease its objections to Kosovo's independence and help encourage Serbs in the territory to improve ties with majority ethnic Albanians.

U.S. State Department official Jones says such a step is key to ensuring that in the future -- perhaps by Kosovo's second anniversary -- Kosovo's Serbs will accept a greater sense of integration than they do now.

"There are still some people in Kosovo who do not respect or recognize the authority of the government in Pristina, and obviously this is a process that needs to be address," Jones says.

"This is why the European rule-of-law mission has deployed throughout Kosovo and is working to unify all of the rule of law processes under a single administration."

RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report, with Bekim Bislimi in Pristina, Edona Peci in Sllovi, Anamari Repic in Brezovica, and Ilirjana Bajo in Prague

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