Kosovo celebrates 10 years since declaring independence

Ismet Hajdari with Rachel O'Brien in Belgrade
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Pristina-born British pop star Rita Ora headlined a concert for thousands of Kosovars

Security forces will march Sunday through the capital of Kosovo as it celebrates a decade since declaring independence, a moment of pride for its ethnic Albanian majority although sovereignty remains fiercely contested by Serbia.

The parade is part of a weekend of festivities and comes a day after Pristina-born British pop star Rita Ora headlined a concert for thousands of Kosovars who packed the main square of the capital covered in the blue and yellow colours of the flag.

"It's been a long journey to get to this point and I think it's just a start of an ongoing incredible journey for our country," the 27-year-old told reporters after flying in for the show, which ended with fireworks over the city.

The singer's family left Kosovo in 1991 to escape the repression imposed by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic after he stripped the Yugoslav province of its autonomy.

In 1998, a war broke out between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian troops that left 13,000 people dead, most of them Albanians. Belgrade withdrew its forces the following year after a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.

Kosovo, which has no army of its own, subsequently became a United Nations protectorate and, with the support of Washington and other Western powers, declared independence from Belgrade on February 17, 2008.

"The state of Kosovo has upheld the people's demand for freedom," Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said during a special government session in Pristina on Saturday.

But "we are aware that citizens' expectations for a modern state have not yet been fulfilled". Another special parliamentary session is set to be held on Sunday morning.

Although more than 110 countries have recognised Kosovo's independence in the past 10 years, Serbia and dozens of other states have not.

Sovereignty is rejected by Russia, whose Security Council veto prevents Kosovo from joining the United Nations, and five EU countries including Spain and Greece.

- Economic woes, ethnic division -

Kosovo's unemployment rate of around 30 percent -- and 50 percent among young people -- has led tens of thousands to move abroad in search of work over the past decade.

Home to 1.8 million people, Kosovo is one of the poorest parts of Europe and hugely dependent on remittances from its diaspora to drive economic growth of around four percent.

"Our expectations have not been met at all," said retired teacher Pashk Desku, 66.

"I am afraid that instead of improving, the situation could get worse," he told AFP.

On Friday, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian schoolchildren began the day with lessons dedicated to the anniversary.

But this was not the case in the separate education system of Kosovo's Serb minority, which remains loyal to Belgrade. The two ethnic communities rarely mix.

In the Serb part of the divided northern city of Mitrovica, black-and-white posters appeared on Saturday lamenting "10 years of occupation", with pictures of hands in cuffs.

The "normalisation" of ties between Belgrade and Pristina is crucial to both sides' bids to join the European Union.

The former foes have reached deals on issues such as freedom of movement since EU-brokered talks began in 2011, but the dialogue has stalled over the past two years.

"Despite the great support it enjoys from Western powers, Kosovo is far, far from being recognised," said Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic.

"Without an agreement with Serbia, this issue cannot be solved."

Despite Belgrade's uncompromising stance, just a few dozen protesters gathered in the Serbian capital on Saturday to rally against Kosovo's independence, in contrast to frenzied demonstrations 10 years ago that left the US embassy in flames.

- Partition concerns -

Some officials in Belgrade have raised the prospect of redrawing borders along ethnic lines.

But Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci insists that the country is "indivisible" and many fear a partition deal would destabilise the fragile Balkans.

US President Donald Trump sent his congratulations to Kosovo for making "great strides in strengthening its sovereignty and multi-ethnic democracy".

"While more work must be done, we applaud your progress," he said.

Kosovo's ties with the West have at times been strained over the past year, as it awaits the first indictments from an EU-backed war crimes court trying members of the 1990s Kosovo Liberation Army.

Recent efforts by ruling coalition MPs to block the tribunal sparked strongly-worded warnings from the US and other Western allies.