BRUSSELS -- European Union officials say a donors conference under way in Brussels will provide at least 1 billion euros ($1.55 billion) for Kosovo.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, kicked off the conference with a pledge of 500 million euros. The pledge was announced by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who said it symbolizes the bloc's commitment to Kosovo.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February, is one of Europe's poorest countries. The EU has said it will take responsibility for the future of the country, although some of the bloc's member states have yet to recognize its independence.
"I'm proud that by pledging 500 million euros -- that is, half a billion euros -- the European Union today clearly demonstrates that this sentence, 'Kosovo is a European matter, a profoundly European matter,' this sentence is not only a diplomatic formula but most concrete, tangible proof of our commitment to Kosovo," Rehn said.
Less Than Expected
Overall, officials say the overall EU contribution is expected to total 1 billion euros, substantially less than the 3 billion expected by Pristina initially.
But there are other sources of assistance. The United States has promised $400 million. Kosovo is also receiving substantial sums from Arab countries, which are keen to support one of Europe's few Muslim-majority states.
The EU funds contributed are intended to cover basic budget shortfalls until 2011.
"Thanks to this effort, I hope that the pledges at the conference will reach 1 billion euros," Rehn said. "This would be a major contribution to Kosovo's development in addressing the real needs of all people living in Kosovo, be it energy, education, transport, institution-building, or administrative capacity."
Kosovo has received some 2 billion euros from international donors since 1999, when NATO forced Yugoslavia to hand the province over to the United Nations. However, it remains one of Europe's poorest countries, with unemployment levels according to some estimates as high as 60 percent.
Kosovo's leadership is eager to win the country international recognition. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci confirmed his country has applied for membership in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and said the EU and NATO , too, are in Kosovo's sights.
"I believe we deserve very soon to be part of NATO, the EU, and all financial institutions, too," Thaci said. "And I think we will have very soon the answer from the World Bank and the IMF -- and a positive answer."
However, Serbia and its main backer Russia have warned they will try and block Kosovo from joining any international organizations.
Seven of the EU's own member states have yet to recognize Kosovo, although Olli Rehn said that does not prevent them from contributing funds at the conference.
Serbia's new prime minister, Mirko Cvetkovic, sworn in on July 7, has said that while joining the EU is one of his country's main strategic goals, Serbia will "never" recognize Kosovo's independence.
Rehn said that EU fund contributions are intended to equally benefit Kosovo's minority Serbs. However, Kosovo's ethnic-Serbian areas have refused all cooperation with the EU or the country's new authorities. Instead, they rely on support from Serbia. Russia is also providing bilateral financial assistance to Kosovo's Serbs.
Although Rehn said he has every confidence in the ability of the Kosovar authorities to spend aid money "effectively," serious concerns exist within the EU that some of its money is being misappropriated. According to Transparency International, Kosovo is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.