Less than ten years after independence, is it all over for the “newborn” spirit in Kosovo?

Less than ten years after independence, is it all over for the “newborn” spirit in Kosovo?

Kosovo, whose economic growth of 3.5 per cent is not benefitting its population of under 2 million, has an unemployment rate of 57.7 per cent among the under 25s. Pristina, 25 April 2017.

(Laetitia Moreni)

While the hostel is barely beginning to wake, and with the eyes of the visiting tourists still foggy from the party that ended late last night, Xili has already filled the communal kitchen with the smell of his fried eggs crackling in hot oil.

Xili then runs from one room to another. He gets ready to go to the tourist agency where he works, “a second job, so I can make ends meet at the end of the month,” he says, hastily swallowing his breakfast. Last night Xili went to bed late once again, because after putting in a day’s work he wears another hat, as the manager of the hostel he opened in May 2013. He runs the business with his partner Chelsea, a young woman with long, thick hair from Texas who has been living in Kosovo for six years. The Buffalo Backpakers is now one of the few hostels in Pristina, the Kosovan capital.

Thirty-year-old Xili never stops. He has the kind of energy possessed by people who are convinced they can make things happen. In a way, he is part of the “Newborn” generation. “Newborn” is not only a state of mind, it is also the image of Pristina symbolised in the form of a monument in the city centre. Seven capital letters forged from plate metal spelling out the word were installed in 2008 to celebrate the unilateral independence of Kosovo after the 1998/1999 conflict with neighbouring Serbia.

The young people of Kosovo, where the average age is 29, want to build a new state, but there is also a growing divide between those who want to stay to contribute to this new country – the youngest in Europe – and those who want to leave for a better life elsewhere.

But despite the fierce enthusiasm of those like Xili who are aware of the potential of their rapidly developing country, a question hangs over them: does the “newborn” spirit exist, or is there still resistance, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence?

“I see a lot of disappointment, it’s sad. There are people who are doing amazing things, but it is not easy,” notes Joanna Hanson in an interview with Equal Times. The co-founder of the NGO Perspectiva, created in 2014, she admits sadly that “they are disappointed in the authorities. And there is another big issue: corruption.”

Dreams have been broken by reality. While the Kosovans are proud to top the opinion polls as the most optimistic people in the Balkans region, the “newborn” honeymoon seems to be over.

With good reason: the country, whose economic growth of 3.5 per cent is not benefitting its population of under two million, has an unemployment rate amongst under 25s of 57.7 per cent.

A survey by the Kosovo Statistics Agency in conjunction with the World Bank shows that in 2015 out of the 733,341people who were not working, 165,712 people were not looking for a job because they believed there was simply no work available. There is even a name for this group of people: the “discouraged” job seekers, who in Kosovo amounted, two years ago, to 14.1 per cent of the working age population. The level of discouragement is higher amongst women than men (16.8 per cent to 11.4 per cent) moreover.

Economic crisis, corruption and an education system in need of reform

In the centre of the capital city the café terraces are full all day long, as people try to pass the time and give themselves something to do to mask the lack of employment.

Young Kosovans tacitly admit that above all it is the authorities who have let them down. Beyond the economic situation that looks far from hopeful, Agron Bajrami, the editor-in-chief of the Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore, regrets the lack of any real progress.

“There is talk of water shortages, there is no real entrepreneurial class, people do not want to compare their situation to 20 years ago, they want to be compared with the rest of the world. With all the money the country has had from the international community, people say their lives should be better.”

In his city centre office, he pauses then says: “A politician earns 20 times more than a pensioner. The people are beginning to ask: “How is it that the people in power don’t have to suffer the way we do?”

Ardiana Gashi, an economics professor at Pristina University agrees: “If the money had been better used, the situation would be much better”. It is not so much corruption that bothers Gashi however, as the education system, “the biggest barrier to the country’s progress”.

In two years time, her four-and-half year old son will have to start school, and this mother is apprehensive about bringing up her children in a run-down school system.

“Their critical capacity is not developed, it is still old school, they learn everything by heart. The children leave school without any analytical capacity. We have had a lot of education reforms, but I have the impression that they have just done a cut-and-paste of things that already exist. Not to mention university education, which remains very poor.”

Gashi studied in the United Kingdom before coming back to Kosovo in 2007. “If I had known we would be in this situation today, I would never have come back. We are ruining our children’s future,” she says, torn between resignation and resistance.

On top of these serious problems, Kosovans don’t have a functioning social security system, and relations with their Serbian neighbour have deteriorated in recent years, taking the authorities’ attention away from the internal issues that need to be resolved.

“I love my country, I hate my government. Of course that is not a good sign,” says Xili, with his deep and powerful voice. Night has fallen on Pristina, and tonight Xili is organising a barbecue in the garden adjacent to the hostel building. It is an opportunity for Xili to spend some time with those who have booked a few nights in his hostel, to listen to the anecdotes of holiday makers passing through Pristina, like a happy, carefree big brother who has put his responsibilities aside for a moment. Chelsea, his companion, supervises it all. While Xili grills a few vegetable skewers over the fire, he says: “People are tired of pinning their hopes on the international community because it has shown that it is not interested in sustainable development for Kosovo.”

Abandoned by the international community

Their domestic authorities may have let them down, but the United Nations and the European Union (EU) are doing the same, as far as this abandoned population is concerned, living in a country excluded from the liberalisation of European visas.

“The people of Kosovo would like to travel, but the country is hemmed in. It is the only nation that remains “imprisoned” in the Balkans. As the EU does not want to liberalise visas, there is the impression that the country is constantly making compromises without getting anything in return.

“The Kosovans would like to benefit from free movement, but unlike the rest of the Western Balkans they don’t have this possibility. It is morally, politically and legally unfair to demand compromises for freedom of movement, which I believe is a fundamental right that all the people of Europe benefit from,” says Mirsad Voca, author of the thesis Kosovo between Yugoslav decomposition and European recomposition: the uncertainties of the right to self-determination. Long queues form outside embassies as people wait to get much hoped-for papers, while even a simple journey of just a few days abroad remains complicated to manage.

Despite this overall situation, Petrit Selimi, the former Foreign Affairs Minister of Kosovo and now the national coordinator of ’Millennium Challenge’ (an international aid programme financed by the US government) says: “I think Kosovo has made more progress than any other country in modern Europe. In 1945, when the Second World War ended, 90 per cent of the people of Kosovo couldn’t read or write. A university for Albanians wasn’t authorised until 1974 and it was only from then that we began to build a middle class”. ut, he acknowledged, “the honeymoon is over.”

In the streets of Pristina, the views of the young people there are more mixed. Xili wants the authorities to “begin tackling their own corrupt structures,” before even thinking about providing jobs or better education.

It is late now, but at Buffalo Backpackers the party is in full swing. While he waits for the country he dreams of to emerge, Xili is building his own place. Within the parameters of his hostel, everything is possible.

This story has been translated from French.