Impressions of Kosovo

IMPRESSIONS OF KOSOVO

Highlights Extracted from a Reportage Based on a Fieldtrip

 

Did you know that Kosovo’s currency is Euro?

Yes? Congratulations, not many are aware of this curious fact.

No? Don’t worry, it’s quite normal.

If you are reading this, you probably want to learn something more about this little country of the Balkans. Is it because you saw their national team during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? If so, nothing wrong about it, that was actually a good moment to get curious about Kosovo since it was their official debut at the Olympic Games. Two days later they even managed to obtain their first victory with Majilinda Kelmendi, who won the gold medal in women’s judo, 52-kilogram category.

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There    are many other things to know about Kosovo and here below you will find some. They might help you in filling some gaps in your general knowledge and hopefully allow you to surprise friends with smart comments and explanations.

Kosovo became officially independent from Serbia in 2008 at the end of a long series of conflicts that lasted many decades. It was part of Yugoslavia since its foundation in 1918 and it had the status of autonomous region of Serbia, that was one of the six republics of Yugoslavia[1]. In Kosovo lived peacefully both Albanians and Serbs but after WWII the number of Albanians started to grow and the one of Serbs started to fall. Ethnic tensions became stronger when the Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic became President of Serbia in 1987. In 1990 Albanian leaders declared Kosovo independent from Serbia but in 1992 the situation collapsed into a full-scale ethnical conflict. In 1999 Serbia was still bringing on a policy of ethnic cleansing against all non-Serbs populations and only the heavy NATO bombings convinced them to stop. The administration of Kosovo was entrusted to the NATO mission, the KFOR (Kosovo Force) and the UN Security Council passed a resolution that granted a provisional government to the country.

Since the official independence in 2008 the situation slowly stabilised although tensions between the two ethnic groups never really stopped. Serbs mostly live in some specific regions of Kosovo, especially in the North, the two populations do not really trust each other and Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its territory, even if they accepted to sign some agreements that had the aim of normalising the situation.

The media attention over Kosovo almost stopped with the end of the war but the process of reconstruction and state-building went on; today it is officially recognised by 109 of the 193 UN members and it is part of some other International Organisations. Among the states that still did not recognise it there are Serbia, Russia, China and also Spain.

Kosovo wants to present itself as a dynamic, multi-ethnic, developing country and like Serbia, is insistently knocking at the doors of the European Union. The six stars on the national flag represent the six main ethnic groups but even if the stars are equal, the situation on the ground is different: more than 90% of Kosovo’s population is Albanian and of the remaining part, 4% is Serb[2] and 4% belongs to other ethnic minorities[3]. The war and its atrocities are still vivid in the collective memory and this is why relations between Albanians and Serbs are still difficult.

Kosovo is a young nation not only because of its recent independence but also in terms of population; the average age is 28,2 years, one of the lowest in Europe. The streets of Pristina, the capital city, are usually crowded with young people who stroll around the shops and the cafés of the new elegant pedestrian street in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, this is also the effect of one of the biggest problems of modern Kosovo: unemployment. Numbers are particularly tragic when considering the younger part of the population: 55,3% of the people aged between 15 and 24 years old are actually without a job[4].

For many youngsters it is hard to find their place in the society and moreover, Kosovo is the only country in the Balkans whose citizens still need a VISA to travel to the Schengen area. This might change in the next months[5] but obviously such restrictions increase the feeling of frustration among a young population whose peers in the neighbouring countries can easily travel around the continent without any bureaucratic annoyance. This contradiction becomes almost absurd if we consider that the currency of Kosovo is Euro.

Young population, high unemployment, a common feeling of frustration, this is a dangerous mix inside the same society and one of the results of this situation is the political movement Vetëvendosje, “self-determination”. It was founded in 2005 and at the moment it is the third biggest party of Kosovo with sixteen seats in the Parliament[6]. Vetëvendosje can be defined as nationalistic movement: they are against every external influences in the internal affairs of Kosovo and they strongly oppose every type of agreement with Serbia until this will not recognise the independence of Kosovo. Nonetheless, they do not promote other ideals that usually characterise nationalistic movements like racism, antisemitism or xenophobia. They propose a more “leftish” version of nationalism.

k1 Vetëvendosje is known for organising massive meetings and manifestations and for using “creative” ways of protesting. One of these was the boycott of products imported from Serbia, that were often marked with tape in the supermarkets by some activists. The most famous type of protest they adopted is probably the launch of tear-gas during sessions of the Parliament which were meant to approve agreements with Serbia. They used the same canisters that were thrown against them by the police during some manifestations and the last time it happened in April 2016[7]. The main personality of the movement is Albin Kurti: 40 years old, a very charismatic personality, good oratory skills and a life-time experience in protests and political opposition.

Vetëvendosje is clearly the expression of the disillusion of the population towards the traditional parties and we should not be surprised about it because the same is happening in many other countries of the European Union. Moreover, by looking at the pictures or the videos of their manifestations, one thing easily catches the attention: none of the participants brings the flag of Kosovo but many bring the flag of Albania. This is actually part of a wider debate whose consequences are visible also around Pristina, where the flag of Kosovo waves on public buildings and the Albian one waves on private houses and flats.

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The official flag of Kosovo has a reassuring “European-blue” color with a map of the country and six stars. It was chosen by the Parliament in 2007 after a competition where the patterns of the Albanian and Serbian flags were prohibited. This was perceived as another unfair injunction from the international community because most of the Albanian population still recognises itself with the Albanian flag. The main reason is that it was under that flag that they fought the war against Serbia. For Vetëvendosje the blue flag represents an unacceptable external influence and for example, since the mayor of Pristina belongs to this movement, in front of the town hall the only waving flag is the Albanian one.

The actual government of Kosovo is a result of a coalition between the two main centre-right parties: the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). This coalition was formed after a period of uncertainty that followed the parliamentary elections in 2014. However, when speaking about politics in Kosovo, it is impossible not to mention Ramush Haradinaj: he is the actual leader of an opposition right-wing party called Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and he served as Prime Minster for some months between 2004 and 2005 before resigning because accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Before entering in politics Haradinaj was one of the main commanders of KLA – Kosovo Liberation Army, a paramilitary organisation often accused of atrocities and massive killings during the war. The trial ended in 2012 and he was absolved from all accusations for lack of proofs. Many protests and polemics followed that verdict, mainly because a lot of important witnesses who were supposed to testify against Haradinaj died in mysterious circumstances[8][9].

Perhaps a “leftish-nationalistic” movement, a government lead by a coalition and a political leader accused of being a war criminal would already be enough to make this an interesting political scene, nevertheless there is another party about which is worth spending some words: Partia e Fortë, the Strong Party. It is a satirical party founded in 2013 and its symbol is the black Albanian eagle on an orange background that instead of two wings, has two big biceps. The actual leader is Visar Arifaj, a “self-proclaimed billionaire”k3whose title is the “Legendary Chairman”, all the other members have the title of vice-president. Partia e Fortë has the purpose of mocking real parties by imitating their attitude and promising absurd things. They participated to the campaign for the mayor of Pristina and these were some of their propositions: usually when elections get closer, politicians start building roads to have practical examples of their good job, so the Strong Party proposed to build a highway under Pristina’s main library. Some people actually believed them and questioned that this might affect the concentration of the students. Another idea was to organise a Grand Prix in Pristina and they even proposed a possible circuit. To answer the long-lasting problem of the lack of public toilets in the city, another proposition was to install urinals in the ground floors of the buildings. Finally, being the party absolutely transparent with its voters, one of the banners that appeared on the streets showed the Legendary Chairman completely naked with just a book covering the necessary.

This satirical party is clearly the result of an interesting and vibrant underground scene and even if its propositions are absurd and provocative, people actually voted for them and now Partia e Fortë has a seat in the municipality of Pristina. It will be interesting to see if they are able to switch from mocks to real propositions[10].

If politics in Kosovo seems to have similar problems than in the rest of Europe, there is indeed a big difference, the presence of international missions: UNMIK from the UN, the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, KFOR from NATO and EULEX from the European Union, not to mention the numerous local and external NGOs that operates in the territory. Eight years have passed since the independence of Kosovo and even if not all problems have been solved, one could easily question that maybe, this massive presence is exaggerated. The major critics come from Vetëvendosje and they obviously affect the popularity of the missions among the local population. The less loved one is probably EULEX, whose mandate was recently extended until June 2018[11]. The mission started in 2008 and it had the purpose of substituting UNMIK and helping the new state in organising its police forces and judicial system. Through the years EULEX was object of many protests because of their attempt to sign agreements with Serbia and also because of some accusations of corruption. The head-quarter of EULEX is a big, austere building in the centre of Pristina. It is surrounded by a tall concrete wall and the security procedures to enter inside are similar to the ones in the airports[12].

The detachment between the international missions and local populations and also the “overload” of international forces is an interesting issue which would probably need some more independent studies, not only for the case of Kosovo but also for other ones like South Sudan, Haiti and Palestine. How international missions are perceived by the populations of the countries in which they operate is probably not a top priority but on the long term it is fundamental to justify their presence and even the existence of the organisations themselves.

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Most of the efforts of the international community in Kosovo is directed towards a normalisation of the relations with Serbia. One of the symbol of the difficulties on the way is the town of Mitrovica, forty kilometers north of Pristina. It is one of the oldest settlements in the region and for centuries Albanians and Serbs lived here peacefully. The war changed everything, the city was heavily damaged and NATO was forced to send here a conspicuous contingent to stop the fights. It worked but stopping fights does not mean reconciliation and clashes between the two ethnic groups happened regularly since then. The Iban river, that crosses the city, became a sort of border between South Mitrovica, inhabited by Albanians and North Mitrovica, inhabited by Serbs. Emblematic is the case of the New Bridge: built in 2001 to become a symbol of reconciliation it has often been theatre of clashes and protests. In the last years it has been closed to vehicles and constantly patrolled by police forces, bringing back images from the cold-war[13]. Officially everybody can cross the bridge (on foot), but inhabitants of both sides often do not consider it safe.

OSCE has an office in Mitrovica and works precisely on the normalisation of the situation but just by taking a quick walk on the North side of Mitrovica one can understand that there is still a long way to go before reconciliation: the car plates are Serbian, the Serbian flag waves on many houses and even the prices shown in the shops are in Serbian currency. The hope for the future lays in the young generations for which the war is more a memory of the first childhood but their situation is even more difficult than for their Albanian colleagues: citizens in North Mitrovica do not consider themselves Kosovars but Serbs. Serbia obviously supports them but at the same time does not treat them as “normal” citizens and they have a “special” passport which does not allow them to travel to Europe. Everything seems suspended in North Mitrovica, divided between an identity that the population wants to protect and a future which goes towards another direction.

In conclusion, Kosovo has many problems and unresolved issues, but in the end it is just a young nation that would like to be fully in control of its future and participate to the construction of a solid and safe European Union. The best example of this spirit is probably the Newborn Monument in Pristina: it is a simple sculpture of the word “Newborn” inaugurated on the 17th of February 2008, the day in which Kosovo declared its independence. It represents the will of the population to start living again after a war whose scars are still vivid in the collective memory.

For the international community and especially for the European Union, ignoring the problems of Kosovo could lead to tragic consequences. As Albin Kurti, the leader of Vetëvendosje declared: “the history of the conflicts in the Balkans might not be over yet”[14]. The tensions that still lay under the ashes of the past conflict should not be underestimated and it is necessary to give concrete signs of inclusion of Kosovo in a common project of peace and welfare.

 

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Francesco Ricapito – August 2016

Francesco Ricapito graduated in International Relations in July 2015 at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice. He worked for nine months at EIUC – European Inter – University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation, in Venice as administrative officer for E.MA, the European Master in Human Rights and Democratisation. In January 2016 he participated to the annual one-week fieldtrip in Kosovo organised for the students of the Master. This article is an extract of a reportage available in the website Lankenauta.eu: http://www.lankenauta.eu/?author=12.

E-mail: fr.ricapito@libero.it

 

 Useful material:

BBC, The Death of Yugoslavia, BBC, 1995, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdS9M7oSVOg.

Bytyci, Tear Gas Disrupts New Kosovo Leader’s Call for Reconciliation, Reuters, 08/04/2016, available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kosovo-president-idUSKCN0X515U.

CIA Factbook, Kosovo, CIA Factbook, 28/08/2016, available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kv.html.

EULEX, What is Eulex, European Union External Action, 28/08/2016, available at: http://www.eulex-kosovo.eu/?page=2,16.

Limes, Haradinaj, un uomo troppo potente per essere condannato, Limes – Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, 06/12/2012, available at: http://www.limesonline.com/haradinaj-assolto-kosovo-troppo-potente-per-condannato/40787.

Macdonald, EU Proposes VISA-Free Travel for Kosovo Citizens, Reuters, 04/05/2016, available at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-eu-kosovo-idUKKCN0XV1A2.

Malcolm, Storia del Kosovo: dalle origini ai giorni nostri, Bompiani, 1999.

RFL, Work Begins On Bridge Spanning Ethnic Divide in Kosovo City, Radio Free Europe, 14/08/2016, available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/kosovo-mitrovica-bridge-work-begins/27920745.html

 

References

[1] N. Malcolm, Storia del Kosovo: dalle origini ai giorni nostri, Bompiani, 1999.
[2] The number of Serbs might be underestimated because the ones living in North Kosovo refused to participate to the census.
[3] CIA Factbook, Kosovo, CIA Factbook, 28/08/2016, available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kv.html.
[4] Ibidem.
[5] A. Macdonald, EU Proposes VISA-Free Travel for Kosovo Citizens, Reuters, 04/05/2016, available at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-eu-kosovo-idUKKCN0XV1A2.
[6] The total number of seats in the National Parliament is 120.
[7] F. Bytyci, Tear Gas Disrupts New Kosovo Leader’s Call for Reconciliation, Reuters, 08/04/2016, available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kosovo-president-idUSKCN0X515U.
[8]  Limes, Haradinaj, un uomo troppo potente per essere condannato, Limes – Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, 06/12/2012, available at: http://www.limesonline.com/haradinaj-assolto-kosovo-troppo-potente-per-condannato/40787.
[9] During a visit on 22/01/2016 in the headquarter of AAK, Haradinaj delivered us a short speech in which explained the main points of his programme and kindly offered us a shot of rakia, a traditional Kosovan spirit.
[10] These ideas were presented during a meeting with the “Legendary Chairman” in Pristina on 21/01/2016.
[11] EULEX, What is Eulex, European Union External Action, 28/08/2016, available at: http://www.eulex-kosovo.eu/?page=2,16.
[12] During a visit the EULEX Head Quarter on 20/01/2016 we spoke with Gabriele Meucci, the Head of the Mission, who gave us a brief overview on the situation and explained us the main tasks of the mission.
[13] RFL, Work Begins On Bridge Spanning Ethnic Divide in Kosovo City, Radio Free Europe, 14/08/2016, available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/kosovo-mitrovica-bridge-work-begins/27920745.html.
[14] He said this during a meeting with the students of E.MA in Pristina on the 19th of January 2016.