Ten shaky years of independence not enough to lift spirits of Kosovo

Pristina, Kosovo - February 17, 2017 - School children march in downtown Pristina with Kosovo flags on the ninth anniversary of independence from Serbia. Kosovo is the newest nation in Europe and the second newest in the world after South Sudan. On February 17, 2018, Kosovo will mark its 10-year-anniversary as an independent nation. (Photo: Valerie Plesch)Rows of blue and yellow balloons the colors of Kosovo’s 10-year-old flag may festoon the main pedestrian drag in downtown Pristina this week marking the country's first decade.

Even so, many here say they are not in a festive mood to celebrate the country's hallmark anniversary Saturday, a day overshadowed by a grim political and economic outlook for the country, and always the past.

“It's a very important day for us – my parents dreamed of having their own state, we fought for this," said Hermonda Kalludra, 25, a graduate student currently in Pristina. "I feel quite emotional but I cannot say that we can celebrate…because there hasn't been that much progress.”

Kosovars are frustrated over flailing prospects to join the European Union and to become a United Nations member state – Kosovo’s independence has still not been recognized by its former master, Serbia, and its allies including Russia and China – and it seems more far off than ever.

At the same time, people here say they are becoming increasingly angry over isolation from the rest of Europe thanks to a strict visa regime that has lasted for years. Kosovars are the only nationality in the Balkans who cannot travel to the 26-nation visa-free Schengen zone in Europe, as well as most other countries around the world, visa-free, and the wait can be up to eight months for permission.

Some blame the succession of governments for not being more effective in combatting corruption, fulfilling the conditions set by the EU for visa liberalization, and improving the situation in Kosovo, especially the economy, health and education.

"People are not up for celebrating – it's not like Feb. 17, 2008 when everyone was in the streets,” said Agron Demi, a policy analyst at GAP Institute, a Pristina think tank. " One reason is the economic situation is not very good and another is corruption, which is very high. The small jails of Kosovo would not have enough space for all the corrupt people to be jailed."

"When talking about 10 years (of independence), usually I compare it to the hopes that we had and what we could have achieved if we had a proper government,” added Demi. “We could have created a much better economic situation or at least (the government) did not have to give (us) such big promises as they used to.”

The youth unemployment rate in Kosovo hovers around 60 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program, which also considers Kosovo’s weak economy as the greatest threat to long-term stability. The lack of employment opportunities was the biggest motivator for tens of thousands of Kosovars leaving home for the EU over the past five years.

“Ten years ago, we had happier times and now we started to be demoralized because there is no income – it’s a bad situation for the youth…they are graduating from (university) and (after), there are no jobs available for them,” said Lirie Shehu, 63, a retired tradeswoman in the capital. “I just feel sorry…they don’t have much opportunity here.”

The Kosovo government says it is working to improve the situation in this small Balkan nation.

“I agree that this is a long process, but we are at the beginning of it, and I believe the work done in the past 10 years is leading us to the right direction for the future,” said Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj in an email.

Various external factors have also hindered Kosovo’s progress, he added.

“It’s crucial for the peace and stability of the region that all Balkan countries become part of the EU, but we have to be careful of Serbia’s and Russia’s intentions, who use the region as a geo-strategic chessboard, which risks destabilization of the Western Balkans and its European (opportunities),” Hoxhaj said.

Meanwhile, the memories of the 1999-98 war overshadow this anniversary, especially for the older generation who lived under Serb occupation until NATO drove Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo after 78 days of airstrikes in 1999, ending the war.

Older Kosovars like Milazim Alshiqi remain thankful for American help in liberating Kosovo from Serbia, but he is not satisfied where Kosovo is today.

“We experience the 10th anniversary as a unique pleasure, for which we gave many lives for centuries – at the end, the possibility to liberate ourselves from our Serb enemy was given to us by America,” said a tearful Alshiqi, 62, a former telecom worker in Pristina. “Kosovo is way better than it used to be, but it is not as it should have been either.”

Around 4,000 NATO troops, including 685 American soldiers, still maintain peace and stability in the country as part of its longest peacekeeping operation in history – longer than Afghanistan. Still, ethnic tensions are on the rise, especially in the north where mainly Kosovo Serbs live, and where rule of law is mostly non-existent.

Meanwhile, former Kosovo liberation fighters are bracing for indictments over war crimes to be handed out in the coming weeks by prosecutors at The Hague through a war crimes court backed by the US and EU. Known as the Special Court, it's likely to target many who currently serve in the government.

The court is highly controversial and unpopular, and viewed as unfair and discriminatory. 

In December, in a surprise move that shocked the US and EU, lawmakers pushed to repeal the law authorizing the Special Court before backing down due to pressure from the US.

In spite of it all, Kalludra the student says she is still optimistic for her generation, and the country's future – even if she knows it will take a while.

“Now people are going abroad to study, so they are more open now, the society and mentality is more open," she said. "Pristina is also becoming a very European city. So I am hopeful in that sense that things are going to change. And we are the change."

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