A few weeks ago, in a burger bar in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, a local man heard me say I was from Scotland and struck up a conversation. He had lived in the Sighthill area of Glasgow for some years, came home after the Kosovo war ended in 1999 and now worked in insurance. But Kosovo’s economy and politics were so dire that he was considering moving back to Glasgow to work in nightclubs.
He is far from the only Kosovar to think that way. Once hailed as a success story of Western foreign policy, Kosovo today is struggling. Its progress is blocked by both domestic and international politics. It badly needs leaders who can help the country become more stable, democratic and prosperous. And, although it has had a lot of help already, it needs more support from Western governments.
As with other Balkan countries, if Kosovo does not progress, the rest of Europe will be less stable. There will be more migration and more organised crime. But most of all it will be bad news for anyone in Kosovo who aspires to earn a decent living in a clean political system.
I first came to Kosovo right after the end of the war. It is easy now to forget how momentous that conflict was. For the first time in its history, NATO went to war with a sovereign state. It succeeded in its aim of ending Serb repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. Serb forces withdrew and hundreds of thousands of expelled Albanians returned to build new lives.
But NATO and the United Nations, who took formal charge of Kosovo, were ill equipped to handle the aftermath. Ethnic Albanians attacked Serbs, forcing many to flee. Kosovo Albanian factions engaged in a brutal struggle for the spoils of war such as political power, businesses and property.
The failure to tackle that lawlessness is evident today. Kosovo’s ruling politicians are widely seen as corrupt and, in some cases, out and out criminals. Cronyism is rampant. In one famous example from a leaked wiretap, a ruling party fixer phones a colleague to tell him he is joining the board of a public body. “But I didn’t apply,” the colleague replies in confusion. His response has become an ironic catchphrase in everyday conversation.
Yet there is little chance of most of these leaders ever losing power. The main opposition party, the Self-Determination Movement, has struck a chord by decrying corruption. But it has been involved in violent protests and supports joining Kosovo with Albania. That puts it beyond the pale for many voters — and for the United States, which (pre-Trump anyway) wields great influence behind the scenes.
Many of Kosovo’s problems are shared by other Balkan countries. But they hurt Kosovo more because it is still seeking international acceptance. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but Belgrade regards it as a Serbian province. Russia supports this stance, which means Kosovo’s path to membership of the United Nations and other organisations is blocked. Even five EU members still do not recognise Kosovo.
At the EU’s prodding, Kosovo and Serbia are engaged in an interminable dialogue that is meant to normalise their relations but has produced few tangible benefits.
A monument of chunky capital letters in Pristina declares that Kosovo is “Newborn” but the infant state’s development has been badly stunted. The jobless rate is above 35% and youth unemployment is above 60%. People need visas to travel almost anywhere in the West and applications are often rejected.
On my recent return visit, a café owner wondered whether anyone would want to fight for Kosovo if war broke out today.
Despite all the stagnation and gloom, Kosovo has a young population buzzing with energy and hungry to succeed. What can be done to help them? On the domestic front, Kosovo’s citizens, prosecutors and judges will have to make clear to politicians that corruption and thievery will no longer be tolerated.
The West could get tough with corrupt leaders too by refusing to meet them and imposing travel and financial sanctions. Boris Johnson was in Kosovo recently. He and other Western ministers could put more pressure on Belgrade to make meaningful concessions in its dialogue with Pristina.
It would be nice to see the man from the burger bar in Glasgow sometime. It would be even better to discover he was just visiting — because things were finally improving at home.
Published in The Herald (Scotland) on Dec 21, 2016.