Key facts on Kosovo, independent for 15 years from Serbia

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(Reuters) – Kosovo marked the 15th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Serbia in February this year and in recent days saw a surge of violence.

Here are key facts about the small western Balkan republic:

POPULATION: Around 1.8 million, according to the most recent census in 2011, which local Serbs boycotted. Ethnic Albanians comprise more than 90% of the population, Serbs about 5.3%, with ethnic groups such as Bosniaks, Turks and Roma making up the remainder. A fresh census is scheduled this year.

AREA: Kosovo spans 10,908 square km (4,212 square miles). It borders Serbia to the north and east, North Macedonia to the southeast, Albania the southwest and Montenegro the west.

CAPITAL: Pristina.

LANGUAGE: Albanian and Serbian are official languages.

RELIGION: Around 90% – largely ethnic Albanians – are Muslims. The other significant denominations are Orthodox Christians – mainly Serbs – and Roman Catholics.

STATE & GOVERNMENT: A parliamentary democracy with a 120-seat legislature, including 10 seats reserved for Serbs and 10 for other minorities. Government is headed by the prime minister, with the president in a ceremonial role.

ECONOMY: Landlocked and poor, Kosovo hopes its mineral wealth will eventually unlock the foreign investment it needs to tackle unemployment of around 30%. But many investors are deterred by volatile ethnic tensions. Corruption, smuggling and organised crime are other serious problems stunting development and undermining Kosovo’s aspiration to EU membership.

HISTORY & PEOPLE: Kosovo became part of the Kingdom of Serbia in the early 13th century, with a mixed population of ethnic Albanians, Serbs and Vlachs. The Nemanjic dynasty made Kosovo the spiritual heartland of Serbia, giving lands to the Orthodox Church and building monasteries that still stand today.

Many Serbs left over the five centuries after the Ottoman Empire defeated Serbs under Prince Lazar in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, while ethnic Albanians grew in number. Mutual expulsions and migrations to and from neighbouring Albania in the early 20th century changed Kosovo’s ethnic makeup.

VIOLENCE & WAR: Ethnic tensions escalated in the 1980s as federal, multinational Yugoslavia began to crumble and economic conditions deteriorated. Populist firebrand Slobodan Milosevic stoked Serb nationalism as a springboard to Serbia’s presidency in 1989 and rescinded Kosovo’s provincial autonomy. He accused Kosovo Albanians of persecuting local Serbs and restricted their rights in education and local government.

After years of passive Kosovar resistance to Belgrade, an armed uprising flared in the late 1990s led by Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas, prompting a brutal crackdown by the Serbian-led Yugoslav federal army and Serbian security police.

Western powers warned Milosevic they would not tolerate another wave of Balkan “ethnic cleansing” after wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Peace talks in France failed and in March 1999 NATO began bombing Serbia to force it to withdraw from Kosovo.

Some 800,000 Albanians fled or were expelled to Macedonia and Albania before Milosevic gave in, 78 days later. As his forces pulled out and NATO took over, U.N. agencies said up to 200,000 Serbs and other ethnic minorities left as well.

FROM LIMBO TO INDEPENDENCE: After almost a decade under transitional U.N. administration, backed by tens of thousands of NATO peacekeeping troops, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008. Its statehood has been recognised by over 100 U.N. member states, including the United States and 22 EU countries, but not Serbia, its big power ally Russia, or China.

Serbia has vowed never to recognise Kosovo’s independence. It backs nationalist minority Serbs in north Kosovo boycotting the state, creating a de facto partition. Half of local Serbs, or around 50,000, live in other parts of Kosovo and have become integrated into its political and economic life.

In July 2010, the International Court of Justice ruled in an advisory opinion that Kosovo’s declaration of independence had not violated general international law.

Belgrade and Kosovo have since engaged in years of sporadic, inconclusive talks on normalisation brokered by the European Union, but with no breakthrough to date. The stand-off in north Kosovo has been marked by repeated violent confrontations over the years, with Serbs erecting barricades and clashing with Pristina police trying in vain to impose state authority.

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