Ramush Haradinaj missed the party when Kosovo declared independence 10 years ago today.
A rebel commander during Kosovo's 1998-9 conflict with Serbian forces, Haradinaj (49) was being tried for war crimes at a United Nations court when his nation of 1.8 million formally broke from Belgrade.
Haradinaj had resigned and flown to The Hague to fight the allegations after only 100 days as prime minister, but finds himself back in that post as Kosovo marks a difficult first decade of statehood and surveys the major obstacles that lie ahead.
“A very important moment in our life was 1999, when the war ended. From 1999 it was really a struggle for the Kosovo people to finalise their freedom and independence,” said Haradinaj, who was twice acquitted of war crimes charges.
"We had to wait several years, and it was very difficult," he told The Irish Times in government headquarters in Kosovo's capital Pristina.
“I wasn’t in the country then, but I remember the joy and release of the people when finally it happened. It was very much deserved and just that it happened, and so we are proud of that.”
The pride of the country's 90 per cent Kosovar Albanian majority is now on display during several days of celebration events, which will include an open-air concert on Saturday night by Pristina-born British pop star Rita Ora.
But there will be no rejoicing among Kosovo's 120,000 Serbs, many of whom face growing isolation, poverty and lawlessness in areas that Belgrade has prevented from incorporating fully with the rest of a country whose sovereignty it rejects; last month's murder of top Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic in the divided city of Mitrovica only added to the sense of unease.
"We are really disappointed with the Kosovo authorities because...what they actually want is to integrate territory and not Serb people," said Igor Simic, a deputy from Serbian List, the main Belgrade-backed party in Kosovo. "They are removing Serbian rights from every part of life."
Yet for most Kosovars life is tough in the youngest and one of the poorest countries in Europe, where unemployment is more than 30 per cent and one in three people live below the poverty line.
"I think Kosovo has two main problems which are competing in destroying our country," said Albin Kurti, leader of the opposition Vetevendosje [Self Determination] movement that is the largest single party in parliament.
"One is high-level corruption in our institutions in a very poor country, and the other is Serbia, which keeps Mitrovica as a divided town and somehow never stops trying to render our country dysfunctional."
Kurti is also critical of both the United Nations mission (Unmik) that ran Kosovo after Nato bombing of Serb forces ended the war, and the European Union mission that took over rule of law functions in 2008.
He believes they focused on preventing another war and appeasing Serbia – and its chief ally Russia – rather than helping Kosovo become a normal sovereign state with its own military, full control of its own borders and a seat at the UN.
“In the Serbian time we were in prison, in Unmik’s time we were in hospital, and now we have one foot in hospital and one in school,” he said. “We didn’t get out from the international protectorate and didn’t enter properly the path of EU integration.”
The EU unveiled a broad strategy last week for expansion into the Balkans, but Kosovo currently trails Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia in the race for membership.
“The western Balkan countries will join the EU but not in the shape in which they are now...Kosovo has huge work to do because it is the youngest democracy,” said Nataliya Apostolova, the EU special representative in Pristina.
The tasks facing Haradinaj’s government include strengthening the rule of law, fighting corruption and organised crime, revamping Kosovo’s bloated public administration and integrating its disaffected Serbs.
“There is a window of opportunity if the political establishment really takes to its heart the European reform agenda – but it is not a very big window,” Apostolova warned.“If they lose momentum they are really going to backtrack...and then there will be a very big discrepancy between the five [other Balkan states] and Kosovo.”
War crimes court
Brussels also expects Pristina to co-operate fully with a new war crimes court – it will function under Kosovo law but be run from The Hague with international staff – to help ensure that trials are fair and witnesses are protected.
Kosovo deputies have threatened to dissolve the court – amid speculation that it could indict former rebel commanders like Haradinaj and the country's president Hashim Thaci – much to the alarm of the EU and the US.
Haradinaj played down that prospect, however, saying “there is no room for stopping or blocking the court. It’s not realistic to go in that direction.”
“I am not really concerned,” he added. “I am proud of my role in our war for freedom, and that pride is more precious to me than anything else.”
Nineteen years after the end of a war that killed some 13,000 people and displaced about one million, Kosovo is still slowly acquiring the trappings of statehood: this week Barbados became the 116th country to recognise its independence and it has just started using its own international dialling code, +383, having shared codes with Serbia, Slovenia and Monaco until now.
Officials hope to resolve a border dispute with Montenegro to help Kosovo secure visa-free travel to the EU in the coming months, but the biggest prize remains elusive – a recognition deal with Serbia to regulate their ties, open up their path to EU accession and give Pristina a place in the UN and other major organisations.
“I don’t understand why in Brussels there is an open gate for Serbia without resolving its relations with Kosovo...In this way Serbia is undermining efforts for a final peace in this region,” said Haradinaj.
“Two decades since the war, I think there is no more time for dialogue that goes ‘step by step’. It’s time for a final solution.”