Independence joy wanes as Kosovo marks fifth anniversary

As it prepares to mark five years of independence on Sunday, Kosovo is closer than ever to normalising ties with long-time foe Serbia, but for many in the impoverished territory there is little to cheer.

Almost 100 countries have recognised Kosovo since ethnic Albanians proclaimed independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, although Belgrade itself still considers the breakaway region its southern province.

But talks mediated by the European Union have led to a thaw in relations in recent months, sparking hopes of a breakthrough that could pave the way for Kosovo to win a seat at the United Nations.

The political progress, however, has been overshadowed by the daily struggles of Kosovans, who say the euphoria of independence has worn off as they deal with the practical realities of living in disputed territory in one of Europe's poorest regions.

Five years ago, designer Yll Rugova and his friends took to the streets of Pristina to celebrate Kosovo's new status with a banner reading "Independence is better than sex".

"Now, that day does not seem to me a day of celebration," the 28-year-old told AFP.

Over a third of Kosovo's 1.8 million people live on less than a dollar a day and gross domestic product per capita is one of the lowest in Europe at 2,600 euros ($3,500) a year, according to the World Bank.

Pristina has struggled to tackle organised crime and corruption, according to the European Commission's latest report, and unemployment stands at 40 percent.

Youngsters in Kosovo face "a miserable economy and lack of opportunities for a normal life," said 28-year-old social scientist Agon Hamza.

Aside from the gloomy economic environment, ordinary people's lives are complicated by its testy ties with Belgrade.

In an effort to ease tensions, much of the EU-sponsored talks have focussed on resolving some of these daily headaches, for instance by easing border controls or recognising each other's university diplomas.

And with Serbia's EU membership dependent on improving ties with Pristina, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who has been holding regular talks with his Pristina counterpart Hashim Thaci, has hinted Belgrade may give up his opposition to Kosovo's long-held goal of joining the United Nations.

"Whether we will get a date for EU membership talks depends on that, whether we will get new foreign investments" depends on the positive outcome of the talks with Pristina, Dacic said on Monday.

The EU is also dangling a carrot to Pristina of an accelerated path towards the bloc.

As a result, the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia met in Brussels for the first time earlier this month.

The historic encounter came nearly 14 years after the 1998-1999 war between Belgrade and ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas which ended when a NATO bombing campaign ousted late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's forces from Kosovo.

Despite the slowly improving diplomatic ties, young football player Enis Gavazaj, considered one of Pristina's rising stars, has run out of patience and is planning a career abroad.

For him, the lack of UN membership has meant he is been unable to prove himself on the international stage as his national team is not a member of football bodies UEFA and FIFA.

"I will leave as soon as I'm 18," the tall midfielder said.

Analysts have also downplayed hopes for an immediate breakthrough on the UN issue.

"I believe Serbia is not ready to give up so quickly... at the moment," said Kosovo political analyst Belul Beqaj.

One of the most sensitive and complex issues is Belgrade's hope for some autonomy for the 120,000-strong Serb minority in Kosovo, who refuse to recognise ethnic Albanian authorities in the territory.

Despite the ongoing challenges, the Kosovo authorities are preparing a number of festivities for Sunday's independence day.

The main event promises to be a parade in Pristina of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), trained by NATO as an emergency force.

But veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army -- who fought Serbian troops in the war and are considered heroes by many Kosovans -- have said they have been denied permission to march in the parade alongside the KSF.

Stung by the snub, they have pulled out of the celebrations, accusing organisers of "avoiding those who are the most deserving of recognition for Kosovo's independence".