Tear gas clouds Kosovo's independence anniversary

AFP , Monday 15 Feb 2016

Eight years after ethnic Albanians joyously declared Kosovo's independence from Serbia, chaotic scenes of MPs releasing tear gas in their parliament hardly give the impression of a successfully functioning state.

But Albin Kurti, an opposition deputy and ringleader of the recent dramatic protests, says such radical measures are the only way to save Kosovo.

"Perhaps people will be a bit shocked," Kurti told AFP at his party office in the capital Pristina, after his release from a stint in jail and house arrest over his activities.

"But I think the majority of people will understand that there must be some terrible hardship for this country, there must be some great danger, if these MPs are forced to do such actions," he said.

Since October, Kurti and his colleagues have nearly paralysed parliament with internationally-condemned tear gas protests, while riot police have fired the same gas at their sometimes violent supporters on the streets.

One of the main targets of the united opposition's fury is a government deal with Serbia, brokered by the European Union, to create an association giving greater powers to Kosovo's Serb minority.

Critics fear the plan will deepen Kosovo's already entrenched ethnic divisions and increase the reach of former master Serbia, against whom Kosovo's pro-independence ethnic Albanian rebels fought a war in the late 1990s.

But for many of the protesters, who are planning a pro-election rally for Kosovo's day of independence on Wednesday, the deal is only a catalyst for action over a host of complaints against those in power.



"We are totally disappointed," said 32-year-old IT designer Petrit Ramadani, recalling the euphoria of eight years ago.

"Kosovo is not what we dreamt it would be."

He and several other protesters accused the authorities of widespread corruption, lagging development and a disregard for Muslim-majority Kosovo's 1.8 million people, 70 percent of whom are younger than 35.

Many of them appear keen to move abroad, faced with an unemployment rate that the World Bank puts at around 40 percent.

Kosovo is still unrecognised by several countries, including Serbia, Spain and Russia, while the cherished goal of joining the EU remains a distant prospect.

Despite slow progress, Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci -- proclaimer of Kosovo's independence in 2008 and two-time prime minister -- says he remains "full of hope".

"The country is changing, we are not perfect, I know that we must do more but it's moving forward," he told AFP in a city-centre government building, its exterior bearing traces of fire and other damage from a recent riot.

"There can be no reason to use violence. We are in Europe, this is not some Middle Eastern country," Thaci said.

The powerful politician, who is front-runner to become president this year, pointed to progress made in talks with Serbia to "normalise" relations, which helped Kosovo to seal a pre-accession accord with the EU in October.

He stressed that deals reached with Belgrade were in "full cooperation" with the EU and the United States -- a staunch ally of Kosovo since NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia to end the 1990s conflict.

Once the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Thaci has been accused of heading a criminal network involved in smuggling human organs and assassinations during and after the war -- allegations he strongly denies.

Today the 47-year-old surrounds himself with an energetic young team that promotes Kosovo through social media and other means as it strives for full recognition.



A slick foreign ministry flyer handed out at a recent conference in Pristina boasted of a "super dynamic country", rich in coffee bars and film festivals, where a "harmonious" and "diverse fusion" of religions and languages exists.

The reality is more complicated, as is clear in Kosovo's northern city of Mitrovica. Here a bridge guarded by a NATO-led force divides ethnic Albanian and Serb dominated areas with starkly contrasting loyalties.

The rundown Serb part of town is covered in Serbian national flags and pro-Serbia and Russia graffiti.

One such drawing bears the slogan "Kosovo in Serbia, Crimea in Russia," referring to the Ukrainian territory seized by Moscow in 2014. A poster shows Russian President Vladimir Putin strolling away from a burning US White House.

Ksenija Bozovic, chairwoman of north Mitrovica's municipal assembly, said Kosovo's Serbs "looked to the government of Serbia" to solve their problems.

But while the controversial association agreed between Pristina and Belgrade is supposed to help this community, she said many were confused and concerned about how it would work on the ground.

"Pristina gives us one version of information and Belgrade says something different. I can tell you the position of Serb citizens -- they are expecting a lot from that association," Bozovic said.

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