Police clashes with protesters in Pristina, Kosovo turned violent Tuesday, resulting in a reported 180 arrests and several dozen people injured, according to Reuters. It was the most severe episode of political unrest in the long-contested state since the autonomous region of the former Yugoslavia declared secession from post-Yugoslav Serbia in 2008.
The string of protests were sparked by two proximate causes: insensitive comments by an ethnically Serbian minister, and Pristina’s back-pedaling on its claim to the long-disputed Trepca mining complex. Each are reflective of the deep ethnic cleavages that plague the region.
Minister of Returns and Communities Aleksandar Jablanovic outraged many Kosovar Albanians with comments he made about an incident in Gjakova/Djakovica on January 6. About 100 Orthodox Serbs took a pilgrimage to Gjakova/Djakovica to honor Serbs who were ejected from the city in the 1990s in retaliation for Kosovars slaughtered by Belgrade. The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network reported that Jablanovic maligned local Kosovars protesting the pilgrimmage as “savages” for allegedly blocking the Serb pilgrims’ access to the Orthodox cathedral. Jablanovic’s remarks were widely interpreted as contemptuous of the local ethnic Albanians. The conflict has tragic recent roots: in 1999, international forces intervened to halt Serbian ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars, and six officials have been convicted of war crimes propagated in the Gjakova/Djakovica area.
The economic issues underlying Kosovo’s current unrest are just as significant as its transnational strife. As protests calling for Jablonovic’s dismissal sprang up throughout January, another transnational debate also raged about the status of the famous Trepca mines. Seated mostly on Kosovar territory, Trepca represents vast troves of untapped mineral wealth worth billions. For 15 years, Trepca has been in relative limbo under the control of UN peacekeepers. In mid-January, Pristina’s vow to nationalize Trepca for Kosovo was swiftly condemned by Belgrade, which does not acknowledge Kosovo statehood. When Kosovo subsequently reversed itself, local miners launched a well-publicized protest which was largely folded into the Jablonovic cause: before Tuesday’s violence, protesters were reportedly chanting “Jablanovic Out! Trepca Ours!”
Trepca is such a lightning rod because it is one of the sole sources of domestic wealth: the mine accounted for a full 70% of Kosovo’s GDP in Yugoslav times. The Kosovo economy has made very little progress since 2008 and its economic viability is questionable. Young Kosovars face a nearly 50% unemployment rate, and most industries are woefully underdeveloped: Kosovo is practically devoid of production and manufacturing, and relies on imports to float. More troublingly, its ambiguous status as an independent state and shoddy national infrastructure terrifies international investors: one ambitious business park in central Kosovo has been sitting half-finished for years, since the country can’t power it.
Kosovo is recognized by around 100 countries worldwide, but few are willing to defy a stronger, defiant Serbia. Perhaps recognizing that its artificial stability is largely reliant on UN troops, Kosovo has attempted to bolster its status through projects like new highways connecting with western Europe, and a free trade agreement with Turkey. But Radio Liberty reports that these efforts have been at the expense of internal development, and have not made a major economic impact. Clearly, Kosovo’s transnational and economic woes are inextricably intertwined — and its future will largely rely on its ability to legitimize its sovereignty in the eyes of international observers.
Tuesday’s violence exposes Kosovo’s complicated and still unresolved relationship with Belgrade, and raises questions about the sustainability of its precarious independence.