Sting of economic reality fails to mute Kosovo’s independence joy

THE conference that took place recently in the Kosovan capital Pristina to mark the end of the country’s supervised independence was billed as “chapter closed in the Balkans”.

But away from the panel discussions and the diplomatic soirees, the atmosphere on Pristina’s streets was more subdued than celebratory.

The end of the supervision of Kosovo’s independence is not purely symbolic: the office of International Civilian Representative has been abolished. For the past four years, the representative, in the shape of Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, has had the power to strike down legislation passed by the elected assembly.

But, unlike the declaration of independence in 2008, the conferring of executive powers on Kosovo was not met with flag-waving crowds or blaring car horns. “We’ve been having historic moments like this for so long, it’s ridiculous,” Dren Pozhegu, a young policy analyst, said. “Independence is nice but if it doesn’t come with economic progress, it won’t change anything.”

Dren is one of the lucky ones – he has a job. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment – unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Kosovo needs to create around 25,000 new jobs every year just to maintain employment at its current level.

Despite annual average GDP growth of over 4 per cent, Kosovo’s economy is struggling to make the transition from Yugoslav communism to independent free-market. Last year, Kosovan exports totalled just €300 million. Without remittances the situation would be even worse. “There are two long-term threats to this country – the economy and corruption,’ said a British official in the International Civilian Office, which is also being disbanded as part of the ending of supervision.

Privatisation is one of the government’s main economic strategies. The World Bank and the European Union are strongly in favour of privatising Kosovan state companies but internal opposition to the sales are mounting.

The end of supervised independence came in the wake of a July announcement by International Steering Group, which includes the UK and the US among its 25 members, that Kosovo has largely implemented the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, better known as the Ahtissari Plan. Nevertheless, the issue of Kosovan sovereignty remains a live one. The new state is still not recognised by the UN, or its neighbour and antagonist in the 1999 war, Serbia.

These political tensions are all too evident in the northern city of Mitrovica. The bridge dividing Serb-dominated north Mitrovica from the Albanian south has been blockaded for over a year. On the northern bank, rows of Serbian flags hang limply from lampposts outside Communist-era flat blocks.

Pristina’s control does not extend into north Mitrovica and the other Serb municipalities in the north. As elsewhere in Kosovo, the problems in the north will require economic as well as well as political solutions, says Brikenda Rexhepi, a journalist at Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore.

Despite the infant state’s teething problems, she is confident about the future. “However the situation is now, we are never going back to Serbia. People would rather starve than go back to Serbia.”

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, 24 September.