Despite its troubles, Kosovo offers a model for nation-builders

About 14,000 NATO troops remain in Kosovo, but stability is taking root, and NATO is expected to soon draw down its forces by a third.
About 14,000 NATO troops remain in Kosovo, but stability is taking root, and NATO is expected to soon draw down its forces by a third. (Visar Kryeziu/associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

PRISTINA, KOSOVO -- Nearly two years after the newest country in the world declared independence, outside powers are still firmly in control.

About 14,000 NATO troops are on hand to keep the peace, a decade after their arrival to protect Kosovars from annihilation by next-door Serbia. With just 2 million people in Kosovo, that's more than twice as many foreign soldiers, per capita, as are currently deployed in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.

The economy is a basket case, with a 45 percent unemployment rate. Most people are dependent on foreign largess. Kosovo even lacks an international dialing code. Landlines are all cursed with Serbian numbers, even though Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence. Cellphone numbers are borrowed from Monaco or a Balkan neighbor, Slovenia.

And yet, in spite of its problems and growing pains, Kosovo is cited by many diplomats as a credible model of nation-building, a sign -- relevant to the current debate over Afghanistan -- that a determined effort by foreigners can help to build a country from the ashes.

After years of ethnic conflict, security and stability are taking root. Predictions that independence would lead to revenge killings by the ethnic Albanian majority against ethnic Serbs, who make up an estimated 7 percent of the population, proved overblown. Early next year, NATO is expected to draw down its forces by one-third.

Yves de Kermabon, the head of the European Union's civilian law-and-order mission in Kosovo and a former NATO commander here, said improvements have come slowly but steadily.

"When you are in the field, it feels like nothing is moving forward," said Kermabon, a retired French general. "But when you come back after two or three years, you are amazed at the progress."

Few people in Kosovo are predicting an easy road ahead. In interviews, foreign diplomats, government officials and ordinary Kosovars agreed that it will take years, if not decades, for Kosovo to stand on its own. Even now, a Dutchman holds nearly absolute power to block decisions made by the fledgling Kosovo government. A separate 3,000-member security force sent by the European Union holds sway over police and the courts. In the meantime, many Kosovars believe the U.S. Embassy dictates their country's affairs from behind closed doors.

But construction cranes rise like green shoots from the skyline of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, which is in the midst of a building boom thanks to foreign aid.

In another hopeful sign, Kosovo in mid-November held its first municipal elections since declaring independence on Feb. 17, 2008. Although there were a handful of violent incidents during the campaign, voters cast their ballots in peace and there were no major allegations of fraud.

Voter turnout was an estimated 45 percent, an increase from the last elections, in 2007, which were administered by the United Nations. Election observers said they were heartened by a small but apparently significant turnout by ethnic Serbs, who ignored a call for a boycott by the Serbian government in Belgrade.

"Elections here are now considered a normal event," said Verena Knaus, a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative, a think tank that focuses on the region.

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