Kosovo marks independence as Serbia ties thawing

Kosovo marks five years of independence on Sunday as relations thaw with long-time foe Serbia but many in the impoverished territory are still suffering.

Almost 100 countries have recognised Kosovo since ethnic Albanians proclaimed independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, following a 1998-1999 conflict that ended with a NATO bombing campaign against late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's forces.

Belgrade still considers the region its southern province, but talks mediated by the European Union have led to a thaw in relations in recent months.

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 its opposition to Kosovo's long-held goal of joining the United Nations.

But stumbling blocks remain, including 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.

Kosovo's foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, told German radio ahead of Sunday's anniversary that the territory's next talks with Belgrade would open the door to elections that would help integrate ethnic Serbs.

He said he expected the next negotiations, due later this month in Brussels, would lead to an end to parallel institutions in minority areas in the north of Kosovo, such as ethnic Serb police.

"Once they are removed, we will be able in the following months to organise democratic elections at the local level and integrate these communities into the rest of Kosovo," Hoxhaj told Deutschlandfunk Kultur radio.

The political progress has however 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.

More than 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.

Despite the ongoing challenges, Kosovo authorities were 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".