By Arshad Mohammed and Fatos Bytyci
PARIS/PRISTINA (Reuters) - John Kerry, on his first trip to the Balkans as U.S. secretary of state, visits Kosovo on Wednesday to underscore Western concern over the slow pace of progress 16 years after a U.S.-led air war set it on the road to independence.
Kosovo faces a deepening political crisis over relations with former master Serbia, against a backdrop of widespread frustration over a lack of progress on democracy, corruption and Western integration.
The country of 1.8 million people, the majority ethnic Albanians, broke away from Serbia in 1999 when the United States led an 11-week NATO bombing campaign to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian security forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
The mainly Muslim but overwhelmingly secular country remains staunchly pro-American, but there are concerns in the West over the risk of radicalization among disaffected and jobless young Kosovars. At least 200 of them are believed to have joined Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.
Kerry’s brief visit, a senior U.S. official told Reuters, aims “to show support for (the) process of democratic state building, strengthening rule of law, and the Kosovo-Serb normalization talks.”
Those talks mediated by the European Union aim to improve relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Serbia does not recognize its former southern province as sovereign, complicating its path to full international recognition.
Serbia’s big-power ally Russia and five of the EU’s 28 members also oppose full recognition for Kosovo.
For weeks, Kosovo has been rocked by riots and repeated scenes of opposition lawmakers releasing tear gas in parliament.
These protests, the most recent of which took place on Monday, are aimed against a proposed deal to grant ethnic Serbs in Kosovo greater local powers and allow them some funding from Belgrade. The opposition believes these steps could threaten Kosovo’s independence.
The official said Kerry would also raise the issue of Kosovars leaving to fight in Syria before he heads north to Belgrade for a gathering of the 57-nation Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) almost certain to be dominated by the war in Syria and the threat of Islamic State.
Having flown close to one million miles in nearly three years as secretary of state, that Kerry is only now getting to the Balkans is seen in some ways as a sign of success in a region that just two decades ago was at war.
Analysts, however, say there is growing disenchantment across the region, notably in Kosovo. Many Kosovars are growing frustrated with the slow pace of progress towards European integration and the freedom of movement, jobs and prosperity they hope this will bring.
“You have this huge frustration growing in Kosovo as it becomes clear that the promises and hopes associated with independence are not being fulfilled,” said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank.
Ardian Arifaj, an adviser to Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci, said Kerry’s visit would provide a “push for domestic politics to continue our work” and showed “we are clearly on the right track.”
The United States continues to commend great support among Kosovars.
“If the Americans were not helping us in 1999, today I would be in a grave ... or in a foreign country,” said teacher Ymer Sylejmani, 64. “But sometimes they (make) mistakes because they are supporting some thieves here – our politicians.”
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Paris and Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Tom Heneghan)