Personal, Travel

Youth and Statebuilding in Contested Kosovo

I visited Kosovo with my study abroad program last week. These are my impressions:

For 110 countries (including the United States), Kosovo has been an independent nation since it declared itself so in 2008. But not everyone looks at it that way.

Depending on your nationality and/or ethnic background, you are bound to see Kosovo in one of two lights: (1) Kosovo is Kosovo—in other words, independent—or (2) Kosovo (i Metohija) is Serbia, as it was during the time of Yugoslavia. And possibly a third if you want to talk “Greater Albania”.

Serbs populated the area that is now Kosovo in the 7th century, where there are many significant cultural and religious sites including the infamous battlefield where “Serbs” (realistically, the forces were not clear cut between Ottoman and Serb; there was probably a mix of Balkan peoples on both sides) the clashed with a majority Ottoman force in 1389. For modern Serbia, espoused especially during the 1990s nationalist movement, Kosovo is regarded as “the heart of Serbia”; Serbia still legally considers the territory its own.

Kosovo Polje monument

The monument at Kosovo Polje (“Field of the blackbirds” in Serbian, also “Gazimestan” to non-Serbs) where Balkan and majority Ottoman forces met in 1389.

But Albanians who had since settled in Kosovo from Albania in the 1980s and who began to outnumber the Serbs in Kosovo in the 1990s, filed a referendum for independence during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Serbian president at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, enacted repressive measures against Albanians and revoked the province’s “autonomous” status.

In 1999, after these “repressive” measures began to include body counts, NATO executed a bombing campaign against Serbia with the official reason to end human rights violations of Kosovo Albanians. Serbian military and police forces were withdrawn from Kosovo after three months of bombing, and an exodus of Kosovo Serb citizenry shortly followed in 1999 and again in 2004 as Albanian reprisal against Serbs also became violent and deadly.

Kosovo is now an almost ethnically clear state. In 2008, there was a 92% ethnic Albanian majority that has increased in past years. The ethnic Serbs making up part of the remaining percentage tend to live in several of the northern provinces, although the minority populations continues to dwindle in these areas.

Pec/Peja

The mountains near the city of Peć/Peja in northern Kosovo.

THE CITY & PEOPLE

When we first arrived in Prishtina, I was shocked at how small it seemed. Coming from Belgrade, I had expected more in size from a “capitol” city, but then again Kosovo’s entire population is only around 1.8 million. Prishtina’s official size was estimated by OSCE at around 200,000 in 2011, but immigrations in the past months have probably shrunk that total somewhat.

What is notable about the population, at least in Prishtina, is the sheer amount of young people (i.e. 18-30 year olds) walking the sidewalks, assisting in shops, relaxing outside cafes, and pouring in and out of the downtown walking street. Prishtina, definitely not the Socialist backwater it used to be, is young, fashionable dressed and full of life.  But it’s not paradise yet.

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View from University of Prishtina

YOUTH, POLITICS, ECONOMICS, IMMIGRATION & PROTEST

I assumed that, with the stream of Kosovars leaving for better economic prospects, the young people would have been one of the largest groups to leave. But there are many factors that keep these young people home. My study abroad program’s Kosovo coordinator, Yll Buleshkaj, who is also Deputy Chief of Party of Kosovo IFES (International Foundation for Electoral Systems), said that these include the presence of universities and state administration, a concentration of service jobs that are mostly occupied by the young, and restrictions on international movement (especially to EU countries).

European integration, as it is in most of the Balkans, is a high priority for the Kosovo government, but economic fallout, corruption and the frozen political situation with Serbia are preventing progress and disenchanting citizens. Perhaps the presence and energies of these young generations is a beacon of hope for Kosovo’s future.

“The large number of youth in Kosovo can be both an engine for a better future or a time bomb.” – Yll Buleshkaj, deputy chief IFES Kosovo

It seems, however, that Kosovo will need more than its youth. “The large number of youth in Kosovo can be both an engine for a better future or a time bomb,” said Buleshkaj. “but [we] need better government policies and improvement in the quality of education in Kosovo.”

Whether due to the presence of a progressive younger generation or just a product of the statebuliding process, Kosovo has seen its fair share of protest regarding such government shortcomings. Even during our visit, broken windows on an administration building in the city’s main square were being repaired from a protest the week prior in which protestors hailed the building with rocks.

Kosovo 2.0 Magazine

Kosovo 2.0, a Priština-based magazine, has given voice to Kosovo’s status of emergence. The most recent issue on Sports discusses, in editor Besa Luci’s words, “conviction grounded in the belief that sports can significantly serve as an agent of international recognition and, especially, an internal social and economic force.” And it’s incredibly well-designed. Take a look at kosovotwopointzero.com.

Faith Bailey, an American Fulbright scholar in Prishtina researching Serbian and Albanian youth exchanges in Kosovo, finds youth protest a positive indicator of Kosovo’s future. “I don’t think people would have protested if they didn’t believe in other possibilities,” she said.

“Young people do not have their head in the clouds—they know they are up against a lot in terms of their economy, and change isn’t a given.” – Faith Bailey, researcher

Buleshkaj shares a similarly optimistic view. “I think if we stop and compare the current state of affairs in Kosovo with five or ten years ago we can notice an immense progress,” he said. “The EU is slowly opening the backdoor for Kosovo. The European path of Kosovo faces no serious alternative. Extremism (mainly religious) is being addressed by institutions and soon religious communities are expected to give their contribution.”

Mosque in Kosovo

A mosque in northern Kosovo near the border/administrative line with Serbia.

Bailey describes how it is a common misconception of Kosovo—formed based on perceptions of the failed economy, government and plain ignorance—“that daily life completely revolves around the war that happened and the current frozen political conflict. Of course it is an important aspect to the story here. But it doesn’t define Kosovo”.

From the West’s view especially, she said, ”People sometimes act condescending or have pity on the problems in Kosovo—however, not looking at your own country and seeing the transnational connections would be a misunderstanding of where the world is today”.

All photos by author.

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