Fifteen years after breaking away from Serbia, Europe's newest state is still seeking full global recognition. As tensions between Pristina and Belgrade persist, an international military force is tasked with maintaining the peace.
Pristina – In the small city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, barricades separate a Serbian enclave from the rest of the ancient town. Serbian flags and buntings dominate the street in the northern section of the city as people cross by foot from one side of the bridge over the Ibar River to the other, indicating that ethnic Serbian residents see themselves as part of Serbia and not part of Kosovo and its ethnic Albanian minority.
The barricades were illegally erected by ethnic Serbians at the behest of Belgrade, according to Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti. “These structures are undermining some of the functions of the state,” he told visiting journalists from the Foreign Press Association in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (APES) in his offices in Pristina.
Military police from Italy's Carabinieri keep a watchful eye on movement to and from the barricaded section. Tensions escalated in Mitrovica after Kosovo declared independence in February 2008. Around 150 Kosovo Serb police officers refused to take orders from the ethnic Albanian authorities and were suspended. Serb protesters then prevented ethnic Albanian court employees from crossing the bridge over the Ibar River drawing international attention.
The Italian police are part of the NATO-led KFOR mission, whose aim is to help maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo. Mandated in 1999 by the United Nations Security Council, the mission comprises 4,000 security personnel from 28 nations. Swiss forces are also part of KFOR, with nearly 200 members serving there.
Seeking global recognition
Kosovo was the last country to emerge from the breakup of greater Yugoslavia after several ethnic conflicts, wars of independence, and insurgencies between 1991 and 2001.
Around 8,661 Kosovo Albanian civilians, 1,797 ethnic Serbs and 447 civilians from other ethnicities, such as Romanis and Bosniaks, went missing or were killed during a bitter two-year conflict against Serbia between 1998 and 1999, according to the Humanitarian Law Center, with offices in Belgrade and Pristina.
Tensions have persisted between the two since then, flaring up from time to time. While most European countries, including Switzerland, recognise Kosovo, Serbia does not recognise the landlocked Balkan country and is stopping others from doing so, according to Kurti.
“Kosovo is a normal country. It is the most pro-European and pro-NATO country in the western Balkans. But Serbia continues to fight us in the international arena,” he said from his office in Pristina. “We do not recognise Serbia, and they do not recognise us.”
“This scenario is very problematic for peace and security. It goes against equality, rights and justice. That is why we are worried, not afraid, but worried," rued the Kosovo prime minister, explaining that Serbia wants an association of Serb municipalities in his country, but will not allow the same for its Albanian minority.
So far, 117 states have recognised the small state about a quarter the size of Switzerland but larger than the island of Cyprus. Spain, Cyprus, and Slovakia, which have issues with separatist movements of their own, as well as Greece and Romania do not recognise Kosovo and have stood in the way of Kosovo joining the European Union.
This is despite an advisory opinion in 2010 from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s main judicial organ, stating that Kosovo's declaration of independence of 17 February 2008 was not in violation of international law.
On 27 February, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti were inches away from signing a deal in Brussels that would place their relations on a more normal footing.
But months of negotiations brokered by France and Germany suddenly broke down into bitter exchanges of accusations of bad faith between the two leaders, with Vucic vowing never to recognise Pristina.
Belgrade had reportedly faced pressure from nationalist groups within the country, with protesters demanding that Vucic cease negotiations.
Swiss interest in keeping the peace
Switzerland was one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo in 2008, ten days after it declared independence. Since June 2020, the Swisscoy, as its military contingency is known, has comprised a maximum of 195 members, all volunteers.
“Thanks to KFOR and thus also to the Swisscoy, the situation in most parts of the country can be considered calm and stable, even if the situation in the north of the country, in particular, remains volatile,” Pauline Menthonnex Gacaferri, chargée d'affaires at the Swiss embassy and acting head of the mission, told journalists.
Switzerland’s cooperation programme in Kosovo focuses on democratic governance and peace but also other current challenges including climate change, water and health.
“To promote democratic governance, including at the local level, the Swiss support focuses on the provision of better municipal services and infrastructures across the whole country (and) the fight against corruption,” said Menthonnex Gacaferri.
She cited the Basel Institute on Governance which supports Kosovo in the recovery of hidden stolen assets, the organisation of free and fair elections through election international and local observation missions, and greater participation of the Kosovo diaspora residing in Switzerland.
The Swiss diplomat stressed that Switzerland has a direct interest in peace and stability in Kosovo and the entire region, where peace remains fragile. As one of the key historical destinations for the Kosovars, Switzerland has a major interest in averting any turmoil in the country that could spark a new wave of refugees.
“Officially, as of the end of November 2022, there were 115,941 Kosovo citizens residing in Switzerland,” said Menthonnex Gacaferri. This figure does not, however, include Kosovars who have become Swiss citizens (around 30,000 since 2008) or citizens of Kosovo origin who had either a Yugoslav passport or a Serbian one and who became Swiss citizens between 1974 and 2008. The figure also does not include the new generations who were born Swiss.
On 1 March, the Swiss Council of States agreed to extend the deployment of the Swisscoy for another three years until the end of 2026 and to gradually increase it by 30 members to respond to possible additional needs of KFOR.
Speaking at the session, Thierry Burkart, president of the Swiss Liberal Radical Party, warned that conflict in the Balkan region would send people fleeing. For Switzerland, he said, receiving a new wave of refugees from Kosovo on top of the recent influx of Ukrainians, would be “a huge task for our authorities”, Swiss media Le Matin reported. The proposal will now move to the Swiss National Council.
Kurti, who has been advocating for greater cooperation with the Swiss army, praised Swisscoy’s for “working hard since the liberation of our country”.