Kosovo is crying out for change, writes Peter Geoghegan, and, increasingly disillusioned with the political system, voters have turned to electing a comedian to office.
Are comedians the political voices for the apathetic generation? If the reaction to Russell Brand’s recent decrees is anything to go by, they could well be.
But while Brand was scribbling in the New Statesman and chatting to Paxman on Newsnight last month, in Kosovo a comic was in the process of actually getting elected to the council in the capital, Pristina.
The Strong Party campaigned on an, eh, unorthodox manifesto – legalise corruption; privatise everything; construct a Formula One racing track around Pristina and universities in every village and neighbourhood.
The party, which took around 2 per cent of the vote and a seat in Pristina, was decried as a “joke” but their message was a serious one – the ludicrous campaign promises were all either exaggerated versions of other parties’ pledges, or cleverly realised digs at Kosovo’s dysfunctional political system.
“We are a group of young people who are angry. But if you just criticise you are not doing anything new. By not opposing (other political parties), by becoming one of them we are showing how ridiculous they are,” the Strong Party’s “Legendary Chairman”, 26-year-old Visar Arifaj, told me when we met over coffee in one of Pristina’s myriad cafes, last week. The average age of the party’s 1,500 vice-chairmen is just 24.
Kosovo is the youngest state in Europe – in more ways than one. It is just five years ago since independence from Serbia was declared; half the population is under 25. For this generation, the war a dim and distant memory, the failures of the present are paramount.
“There is dissatisfaction among the young,” says Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst. Among 15-24 year olds unemployment stands at an eye-watering 53 per cent, according to statistics from the office of the Kosovan prime minister. No wonder so many have, as Pozhegu says, “lost the belief in change”.
Part of the problem is the kind of change that Kosovo has experienced since the war with Serbia was brought to an end 14 years ago.
Privatisation is a case in point. At one end of pedestrianised Mother Theresa Boulevard, Pristina’s main thoroughfare, is the hulking frame of the 13-storey Grand Hotel. Built in 1978, the 350-room Grand was once the epicentre of Kosovan high society. During the war, it housed the Serbian army and the press corps. The hotel was privatised in 2006 and now stands dilapidated and half-empty, open to guests but in no fit state to receive them.
After the war, many former US officials returned to Kosovo for the privatisation boom — in telecom, mining, or other lucrative government contracts — including US former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and James W Pardew, formerly a special envoy to the Balkans under president Clinton, who was at helm during the Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.
Kosovo’s privatisations have been “a very dubious process”, says Muhamet Hamiti, erstwhile Kosovo ambassador to London and adviser to former president and independence leader Ibrahim Rugova.
Connected to the privatisation process has been arguably the biggest problem facing the young Kosovoan state – corruption. Backhanders and payoffs have been widely seen as an almost routine aspect of awarding government contracts. The head of Kosovo’s anti-corruption task force was recently arrested – on corruption charges.
“Corruption is endemic. It is a fog that everyone can see but you can’t reach out and touch it, you can’t grasp it,” a very senior international source in Kosovo told me.
In 2010, the first governor of independent Kosovo’s Central Bank, Hashim Rexhepi, was arrested on corruption charges. But an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network found serious errors in the charges against Mr Rexhepi, amid suggestions that he had actually attempted to stand up to political interference and corruption.
Corruption, of course, is not confined to Kosovo – across the former Yugoslavia, states struggle to control graft. But in Kosovo, there is a European mission, EULEX, dedicated solely to upholding the rule of law.
EULEX has not been inactive – just last week a prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters on war crimes charges – but they are widely seen as failing to get a grip on corruption and organised crime. The international community has put a premium on regional stability, making it difficult – if not impossible – to pursue charges against suspects closely connected with the government of prime minister Hashim Thaci in Pristina.
“The rule of law sits uncomfortably with the grand desire for stability at all costs,” a source told me.
An April peace deal brokered by Baroness Ashton in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia was intended to cooper-fasten this “stability”. Under the terms of the agreement, Serbia would recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the police and the courts in the restive, ethnic Serb-dominated north in return for greater autonomy for Serbs across Kosovo. Successful implementation of the accord is widely seen as crucial to both Kosovo and Serbia’s European Union ambitions.
“The EU want short-term peace and stability but they don’t care how it is achieved,” opposition leader Albin Kurti said when we met in the offices of his party, Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), in Pristina.
Kurti, a former student leader, political prisoner in Serbia and adviser to the political representative of the KLA during the war, has been a vocal critic of the international presence in Kosovo and the political system they have done much to support. “Before the war we had equality without freedom. That was prison.
“Now we have freedom without equality. That is the jungle. I don’t like prison or the jungle.”
Kosovo has had successes – local elections held earlier this month were widely hailed as the freest and fairest yet (aside from in the north, where violence and intimidation marred voting, necessitating a repeat election in North Mitrovica on Sunday).
There is economic growth – just not enough of it – and Kosovans display an entrepreneurial spirit that would be the envy of any nation.
Pristina is a city teeming with creative young people – and, as the Strong Party attests, it is not just Russell Brand who is fed up with the political status quo.