Pristina the capital of Kosovo, known as the capital of the young Europeans, is a place of new beginnings trying to model its way into the future.
In February, the country celebrated its eighth anniversary of independence and, although Kosovo has treaded a somewhat tortuous way since then, there are still obstacles in the way that threaten its future as a European nation.
Relations with Denmark
Denmark has for some time been invested in Kosovo’s progress. Nicolai Wammen, the minister for Europe at the time, was the first EU minister to visit Kosovo and Serbia following the countries’ historic 2013 agreement to normalise relations. Some 100 more have since followed suit.
The Balkan state is also one of the seven countries Denmark supports through the Danish Neighbourhood Programme. This assistance included a donation of 30 million kroner last year to support civil society in Kosovo and fight corruption.
And there is now a strong hope held by both countries that, given the recent economic development of the country, the relationship in the future will be characterised less by aid and more by trade.
As Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo’s president-elect, stated last week in an editorial for euractiv.com: “Kosovo must avoid being consumed by its past. We must not allow our progress to be derailed by nationalism that invokes old conflicts.”
Nemesis to the north
Nevertheless, while Kosovo has demarcated three of its four borders – the only Balkan republic to have achieved such a high percentage – Serbia to the north continues to be a hindrance to its future eight years on from independence, which was supported by the US and 23 of the then 27 EU states members, but not Serbia.
Kosovo has a population of approximately 1.816 million people, of which 92 percent are Kosovo-Albanians and 4 percent Kosovo-Serbs – a north-south divide of ideological differences that continues to set the political agenda.
Backed with financial support from Serbia, the north would dearly like to be part of Serbia again, even if this isn’t an option at the moment.
Since Brussels, the Serbs have agreed to co-operate in some areas so the country can function as an administrative state.
Needs of the north
According to Tatjana Lazarević, a journalist and editor of the Kossev Portal, the north was pretty much ignored in Brussels.
“As a community we feel humiliated because decisions in the Brussels process have been taken without the opinion of the north,” she told the Copenhagen Post Weekly. “We were not an active player.”
The process of integrating the local population needs to be taken seriously, contended Samuel Zbogar, the head of the EU in Kosovo and EU special representative.
“The process of integration between the north and the south is an issue that Kosovo needs to solve in order for the country to succeed,” the Slovenian explained. “But it has been and is still slow.”
Standing by itself
The resulting political instability impacts directly onto the economic development of a country rich in human capital – a large majority of its citizens are aged 40 and under. As things stand, it has an unemployment rate of 35 percent, which is as high as 60 percent amongst the 15 to 24-year-old age bracket.
The will for progress is strong, nevertheless. Bekim Collaku, its minister for European integration, contends that Kosovo “is a country that can stand by itself”, and among those who agree is Zbogar. Since starting his mandate in 2012, he believes he has witnessed a great deal of progress, and he has total faith the country will come out of its political shell.
One of the main issues still lies in its recognition: namely that Kosovo needs to be acknowledged by all European countries. Collaku doesn’t want the country to be treated as “second-class citizens” anymore. Instead, he says, they want the same level of treatment granted to all Europeans.
Preventing an exodus
Kosovo has been working hard of late with the EU to facilitate a visa liberation, and Zbogar is confident it won’t be long before Kosovars can travel freely to other European countries.
“We are at the finish line,” assures Zbogar. And it would appear that an announcement is expected in May.
Collaku, on the other hand, expressed his concern that the matter has taken so long that many have lost hope. Should the liberation not be formalised, he predicts a “worst case scenario of 200,000 Kosovars fleeing the country by the end of next year”.
Partner pouring in funds
The EU remains committed, however. “We are the main partner of Kosovo and the largest investor and donor,” contends Zbogar, and it is clear from the figures that no other country in the Balkans has received the kind of help from the EU and its major states.
Committed to investing 645 million euros between 2014 and 2020, EU funding has poured into rule of law, agriculture, energy and the country’s infrastructure.
And the money is being wisely spent, looking towards the creation of a modern European country, not one desperately trying to keep up. For example, 63 schools have been renovated to prove a better environment for the children and become energy-sufficient.
Another large outlay saw the construction of a palace of justice, which in the future will facilitate the fulfilment of international and EU justice standards and fight corruption.
Making a difference
The country’s agricultural potential is huge, contends Rrustem Abiti, the director of finance and administration at the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce. “There are limitless opportunities in Kosovo and the results are tangible”, he said.
In addition to the funding, Kosovo is also qualifying for grants that have enabled it to bring its milk production and food processing into line with European health standards. An example is the Euro-Lona dairy company. The grants are aiding local farmers and generating new jobs.
Last October, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between the EU and Kosovo was signed. It is expected to come into force in April. This agreement will create trade and investment opportunities for Kosovan manufacturing and put it on a path to economic development.
“We expect with this agreement that the quality of our products will increase and therefore be compatible with EU product standards,” enthused Collaku. The SAA ensures that countries from outside the EU will face the same conditions as they would trading with member states.
And the EU’s activities are even making an impression in the north. “We have been quite active in the north over the past few years,” said Zbogar. Projects include investment in sports and health centres, waste management facilities and factories, and even cultural events.
Belief is emerging
Back in Pristina, a belief is emerging that this is a place of new beginnings trying to ensure a brighter future.
“The current political situation is not the one we want,” expressed Abiti, and it would appear he speaks on behalf of many – a Kosovo busy dispelling the corruption and political obstacles to grasp its longed-for independence and succeed.
And there is even a belief and will among many citizens that Kosovo-Serbs and Kosovo-Albanians can live together in harmony, although they will have to work hard and together to accomplish it.
Its political situation will first need to stabilise, but as Collaku claims: “The road is secure for us.” He like many believes that Kosovo will soon become a normal democracy.