Kosovo’s ‘Strong Party’ backs most everything – but dull politics

A bold new political platform is arriving in tiny Kosovo: Corruption should be legalized and serious diseases outlawed. A Formula One racing track should be built around Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. Urinals should be installed in the foyer of every public building in the city.

These are just some of the policies proposed by a new, tongue-in-cheek politics that has started bringing laughs to the often stagnant politics of Albanian-majority Kosovo.

Partia e Forte, i.e. The Strong Party, is of course a spoof, an example of Balkan satire and sense of the absurd. The party got founded after a conversation among friends in a Pristina cafe two years ago. But after Sunday’s local elections, it is on course to win at least one seat in the city council.strong party

“There was a need for a party like this in the political scene to bring something new, and not just continue with the same boring politics,” the Strong Party’s so-called “Legendary Chairman,” Visar Arifaj, explained the day after the local elections, which continued into a 5 a.m. post-election party.

The Strong Party taps into a perpetual roiling discontent in Kosovo, especially among the young – and comic relief in what is an often heavy dialogue around the tense Serb-majority enclave of North Mitrovica.

Over half of Kosovo’s population are under 25, and they make up many of the 40 percent unemployed figure. Corruption scandals have been present for years and have fed a disillusionment with mainstream politics, mostly dominated by parties that emerged from the independence struggle in the 1990s.

Like the Best Party in Iceland, Mr. Arifaj believes that farce can be a highly effective form of protest. “If you just criticize you are not doing anything new. By not opposing them, by becoming one of them, we are showing how ridiculous they are.”

Arifaj and the rest of the Strong Party have certainly succeeded in holding Kosovo’s political class to ridicule. Playing off a slew of universities that have sprouted all over Europe’s youngest state in recent years, Arifaj made a campaign “pledge” to build a college in every single neighborhood.

“The prime minister appears to want universities in every village; well, we’re going further,” he said during the campaign.

The Strong Party has a novel approach to solving Kosovo’s unemployment crisis, too. “We don’t think it is a problem that 40 percent are unemployed. We think that the 60 percent who do work are the main problem.”

“What we will try to do is make everyone not have to work. Everything should be done by computers, so people can get their salaries just by sitting at home,” he says.

Strolling around Pristina in Arifaj’s company it is clear the party hit a nerve in a city that does have plenty of creative youth. It is hard to move more than ten feet without someone stopping to shake Arifaj’s hand or pat him on the back. “We were a bit surprised by how people accepted and how they do love [the party],” he says.

“In the beginning we didn’t know how people would react to it. If they would throw stones at us or kiss us. We are glad it went the good way!”

The Strong Party brought “humor to the dull pre-electoral campaign” says Ilir Deta, executive director of the Kosovo think tank Kipred. “It is a success that they will be represented by a counselor or two at the municipal assembly.”

The party intends to contest the 2014 general election. Behind their comic appearance lies a serious message. “Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe. A lot of young people are not represented politically,” says Yll Rugova, a graphic designer and one of the Strong Party’s 1,500 “vice-presidents.”

“There are people like us in countries like Serbia and Macedonia and maybe, maybe we can develop something together that break the borders. That sounds a bit cheesy but it is really something that could happen.”

This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor

Kosovo PM urges Serbs to vote in make-or-break elections

Kosovo‘s prime minister has issued a last-ditch appeal to Kosovan Serbs to vote in critical elections this weekend that are widely seen as a make-or-break moment for the republic.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hashim Thaçi said that the abandonment of polling after attacks in northern Kosovo earlier this month was a result of “pressure, threats and other methods”, and added that he would hold Serbia responsible if there was a repeat performance in the re-run vote in North Mitrovica on Sunday.

Thaçi said that a successful vote was vital to a peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia and encouraged ethnic Serbs in the republic to vote. He said the only ones who would lose by participation in the elections were extremists and radical groups in north Kosovo.

Voting was suspended in North Mitrovica on 3 November after masked men burst into three polling stations in the town, which is predominantly ethnically Serbian, firing teargas and destroying ballot boxes. “We know what happened, who did it and why they did it,” Thaçi said.

The local elections followed a peace deal brokered in April by the European Union between Serbia and its former province. Under the terms of the agreement, Belgrade will dismantle the parallel systems that deliver a range of services from healthcare to education in north Kosovo in return for greater autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Many in the north refuse to recognise the Kosovan state, which declared independence in 2008. The highest turnout in the other three Serb municipalities in north Kosovo was just 22%, but Kosovo’s electoral commission decided to accept these results and to limit the re-run to the divided town of North Mitrovica.

“If the people were allowed to vote the participation would have been over 25%,” Thaçi said. “What we need now is political stability in north [Kosovo] to create legitimate local institutions and investments, and then things will change.

“Kosovo is not endangered by Serb integration. Kosovo is endangered if they do not integrate,” he said of Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs.

The Brussels agreement has proved controversial in both Serbia and Kosovo, but Thaçi rejected criticism of it. “How should we handle the situation with Serbia? Should we start the war again? Kill each other? This is the best possible deal for both countries,” he said.

Successful implementation is widely seen as essential to Serbia’s and Kosovo’s EU ambitions. “It is the best solution for Kosovo and Serbia to become EU members, and also the best solution for the region,” Thaçi said. “We didn’t fight against Serbs: we fought to remove Serbia and its oppression mechanisms in 1999.”

The future of the Brussels deal hinges on who comes out to vote on Sunday, said Ilir Deda of the Pristina-based thinktank Kipred. “It all depends on what the northern Serbs want to do. Do they want to kill it by boycotting or do they want to legitimise it by electing a Serb mayor?”

Thaçi’s counterpart in Belgrade, Ivica Dačić, warned ethnic Serbs in North Mitrovica to vote “unless they want the city to be led by an Albanian”.

Dačić told Serbian TV that the system of largely autonomous Serb municipalities, agreed with Pristina in Brussels, would break down if Serbs did not participate in the re-run. “If the mayor is Albanian, it will mean that we are not be able to set up the administration, and we will not be in the position to create the community of Serb municipalities, which could lead to conflicts and perhaps even to armed conflicts,” he said.

Scars remain from the last war. On Friday, an EU prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters on charges of torturing and killing civilians during the 1998-99 conflict with Serbia. Among the accused are Kosovo’s ambassador to Albania, Sulejman Selimi, and leading members of Thaçi’s governing PDK party, including Sami Lushtaku. Despite being in prison, Lushtaku won the mayoral contest in Skenderaj earlier this month with more than 88% of the vote. “He won because people trust him,” Thaçi said.

But Thaçi said that any former KLA members convicted of criminal charges would be expelled from the party. “We had previous examples where people were in judicial proceedings and they were elected as members of parliament. But from the moment when someone is found guilty by a court they will not remain in politics after that.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 15 November, 2013. 

In north Kosovo

On Sunday November 3, Kosovo held local elections. Across the country
turnout was moderate-to-high — except in four majority ethnic Serb
municipalities north of the Ibar River, the de facto border between
north and south Kosovo. In Zvecan, just 11.2 per cent cast a ballot.
Leposavic and Zubin Potok were a little better – 22 percent of the
electorate turned out in in each – but in North Mitrovica, the main
urban centre in north Kosovo, the poll was a disaster. Serbs refused
to vote. Around 5pm, a group of masked men forced their way into two
polling stations in the town, throwing tear gas and smashing ballot
boxes.

north kosovoThe November 3 violence in North Mitrovica was hardly a surprise. The
Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor, Krstimir Pantic, had been
attacked two days before polls opened, leaving him with a deep gash on
his chin. ‘We expect trouble this evening,’ my Serb fixer said matter-of-factly
the morning before the vote as we drove to my hotel, which overlooked
the OSCE’s gated compound. ‘On the one hand you are quite secure here,
but on the other if there is trouble it might end up here.’ In
September, a Lithuanian officer in the European Union’s Rule of Law
Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was shot dead outside the town. No one
claimed responsibility, but the killing – which bore the hallmarks of
a professional hit – was widely blamed on organised criminal networks,
which have a lot to lose from any thaw in North Kosovo’s fourteen-year
old frozen conflict.

The north is home to around a third of Kosovo’s 120,000 or so ethnic
Serbs. Unlike elsewhere in Kosovo, Serbs here share a large land
border with Serbia and have, since the war ended 1999, lived in what
is effectively a parallel state, with Belgrade administering (and
paying) for everything from social welfare to health and education. In
North Mitrovica, Yugoslav-era cars, many without number plates,
clutter footpaths, and Serbian flags fly from lampposts outside drab
Communist-era apartment blocks.

I arrived in North Mitrovica on foot – the main bridge spanning the
Ibar has been blocked to vehicle traffic by a huge mound of earth and
stones, since July 2011. A black stretch limousine cruised up and down
the main street. This, I was later told, was a ‘mafia’ wedding. The
bride was the daughter of a well-known local gangster who graduated
from ‘bridge watching’ for interlopers coming across the Ibar to petty
crime and then large-scale drug dealing. Now he lives in Belgrade –
where his wife is a close confidante of Serbian pop singer, and
Arkan’s former wife, Svetlana Ražnatović (better known by her stage
name, Ceca) – but he retains a lucrative foothold in North Kosovo.

The November 3 elections followed a deal between Serbia and Kosovo
negotiated in Brussels, in April, by EU high representative Catherine
Ashton that gave Pristina a greater role in the north in exchange for
more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo. Belgrade had called on
Serbs in North Kosovo to vote – warning that they could lose their
state jobs if they didn’t – but in North Mitrovica shop windows
displayed stickers in support of a campaign to boycott the vote. ‘This
process did not include the Serbs in the North, which is a good basis
to fail,’ a rather reluctant opposition mayoral candidate, Oliver
Ivanovic, told me on the eve of the poll. That night, youths stood
drinking outside the local office of the right-wing Democratic Party
of Serbia (DSS). The DSS, headed by former nationalist Serbian PM
Vojislav Koštunica, bitterly opposed the Brussels Agreement.

Next morning I visited a polling station at Sveti Sava school. It was
a Spartan affair: a few Orthodox icons on the walls, a handful of
election observers and even fewer voters with little sign of security.
Outside a dozen or so kept a silent, intimidating vigil. I recognised
a couple from the DSS party the previous evening. I approached one – a
man in his 20s with a Serbian flag patch on his leather jacket – but
all he would say was: ‘Kosovo is Serbia’.

As the day darkened, so did the mood. Reports of the attack on the
polling stations filtered through. ‘Be careful, there’s no police here
to protect you,’ a Serbian photographer warned as we stood on North
Mitrovica’s main street, waiting for the crowd to clear. It did, but
only after the OSCE had pulled out its contingent and closed the
polls, two hours early. Rumours circulated that the Serbian government
had organised the attacks to prevent the ethnic Albanian candidate
winning the mayoral vote in North Mitrovica. ‘Belgrade failed. They
promised something that they couldn’t deliver, so they did this to
stop the voting,’ a man, who had not voted, told me in a local bar.
Subsequent reports suggested that boycott protesters themselves were
behind the attacks.

After almost a week, Kosovo’s central elections commission declared
the vote in three polling stations in North Mitrovica invalid. (The
results in the other three Serb majority municipalities north of the
Ibar would, the Commission said, stand despite accusations of
intimidation and very low turnouts.) Repeat elections in North
Mitrovica were hastily arranged for November 17. Two days before the
vote, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic paid a visit, telling a crowd
of around 5,000 that “you need to help us in order to help yourselves,
so that we can continue helping you.” Public sector workers were sent
a communiqué telling them what time they would be expected to go and
vote and which government official would lead them to do so. Other
encouragements reportedly included sugar, cooking oil and cash.
Amid a massive security operation, 22.38 per cent voted.

Kosovo went to the polls in run-off elections on Sunday (December 1).
The Belgrade-backed ‘Srpksa’ (“Serbia”) list won the vast majority of
Serb municipalities, including in North Mitrovica. Some in Pristina
fear the power Belgrade could exert on its former province through the
Union of Serb Councils established under the Brussels agreement.

South of the Ibar River Sunday’s vote was a disaster for the
establishment Albanian parties. The ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo
(PDK), led by former KLA fighter Hashim Thaci, lost power in five
municipalities; Ramush Haradinaj, who has twice been acquitted of war
crimes in the Hague, lost his power base in the west of country; and
even the opposition, Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which won a
number of municipalities, is in turmoil, having seen Vetevendosje
(Self-Determination) wrestle control of the capital, Pristina.

Many of Vetevendosje’s voters are young urbanities that do not
necessarily support their brand of left-wing politics and pan-Albanian
nationalism but they are fed with up the corruption and lack of
opportunities in Kosovo. ‘It’s an electoral earthquake,’ a friend in
Pristina told me on Twitter. ‘I’m hopeful this spirit will continue,
though it’s too early to tell.’

Kosovo city plans new polls after marred vote

North Mitrovica, Kosovo – In this city politics is literally written on the walls. On the main street of this predominantly Serb town in north Kosovo, a brightly painted mural declares, “This is Serbia”. Nearby graffiti calls for the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo to “go home”.

Once a prosperous, ethnically mixed city, Mitrovica has been divided since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. A huge mound of earth and stone blocks the bridge connecting Serb-dominated North Mitrovica from the larger Albanian settlement south of the Ibar River.

In recent weeks, new messages have begun appearing on North Mitrovica’s walls: “Kosovo is Serbia”, “1389” (referring to the year the Battle of Kosovo was fought) and, most prominently, “boycott”.

On November 3, local elections were held across Kosovo, in accordance with a peace deal signed by Serbia and its former province in April. Serbia pledged to recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the north in return for far greater autonomy for Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs. Underpinning the deal was both sides’ ambitions to join the European Union.

Failed elections

In the rest of Kosovo, the elections passed relatively peacefully but in North Mitrovica, amid a highly visible boycott campaign supported by the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia and smaller ultranationalist groups, problems quickly arose. By midday, the turnout rate at polling stations in the town was in the low single digits. Outside, groups of nationalist youths held an intimidating vigil.

At around 5pm, masked men simultaneously stormed three polling stations, firing tear gas canisters and smashing ballot boxes.

Oliver Ivanovic is running for mayor of North Mitrovica [Bojan Slavkovic/Al Jazeera]

Officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were evacuated from North Mitrovica and the voting was suspended. Last week, Kosovo’s electoral commission declared that the election in North Mitrovica will be re-run on Sunday, November 17.

The international community was widely criticised for the electoral failure. “There was strong resistance to the election here in North Mitrovica, and everybody knew this. It shows poor planning and understanding of the situation by international organisations, which allowed those elements opposing the elections to organise,” Mitrovica-based analyst Branislav Krstic told Kosovan media.

Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008. But the Serbian government called on the 40,000 Serbs in the north to participate in the recent elections. For many Serbs living in north Kosovo, this was tantamount to a betrayal.

Even the candidates running in the election were ambivalent about the vote. “From the beginning it was not well prepared. It was not transparent. This process did not include the Serbs in the north, which is a good basis to fail,” said Oliver Ivanovic, who was running for mayor of North Mitrovica. “It was a hidden process, hidden from both sides without any involvement of those who are supposed to be involved. What they agree is going to affect our lives. We have to be asked what we think.”

Serbia ties

Over the past 14 years, north Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of Kosovo. Parallel structures funded by Belgrade provide education, health, and court systems, and many in North Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo. “A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina,” said Ivanovic, referring to Kosovo’s capital. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”

Almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken its toll on North Mitroivca. Cars, many without license plates, block footpaths, and drab Communist-era apartment blocks look down on streets that have changed little since the dying days of Yugoslavia. While many shop shelves are half-empty, lucrative illegal trades in everything from fuel to firearms have flourished.

Around 35 percent of North Kosovo’s population of around 70,000 is unemployed, said Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer at the town’s university. Most of those who do work are employed by the Serbian state.

“Conflict potential is still the biggest barrier to trading,” explained Ardill, who was recently involved in a study on private-sector business capacity in north Kosovo. Only about 30 percent of the companies surveyed engage in trade south of the Ibar River – partly because of the prohibitively high cost of insurance levied by the Kosovan government on Serbian-registered vehicles that are the norm in north Kosovo.

Masked men raid Kosovo polling station

“Economic integration is a good way to get people to talk to each other – you’re able to push economic growth but also integration and conflict resolution,” said Ardill.

The division of Mitrovica has inflicted social and economic costs on the Serbs living on the north side of the city. “Before the war, the town was organised in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town. But by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station. Everything is in the south,” said Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who declined to give his last name.

Before 1999, life in Mitrovica “was not perfect but it was good”, he said. Now Sinisa seldom travels to the south of the town anymore, “because of the danger”.

“We are just waiting for what will happen tomorrow. You have the feeling that everything is normal, but we are always waiting for what politics will bring.”

Continually manned by international police, the barricaded bridge over the Ibar River is open only to foot traffic. On the ethnic Albanian side, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, said both the Kosovan and Serbian governments failed to engage with people on the ground ahead of the recent elections.

“People were not involved in the process at all. Nobody told people what was involved,” she said. “It is all between Pristina and Belgrade. You see things going on in the sky and you just hope nothing will fall on us. There are people who don’t want to lose their power and they are making a lot of trouble so they don’t lose the benefits they have from the situation.”

Worry of ‘half-legitimate leaderships’

In the other three Serb-dominated municipalities in the north, Leposavic and Zubin Potok recorded a voter turnout of 22 percent, while 11.2 percent of voters in Zvecan cast ballots. Despite reports of intimidation in some of these areas, Kosovo’s electoral commission said there would not be a re-run in these municipalities.

Ilir Deda, the head of Pristina-based think tank Kipred, warned that accepting results based on such low turnout could see “half-legitimate leaderships” emerge in the northern municipalities. “This will lead to further instability in the north in the years to come and create a permanent crisis of legitimacy, governance and ultimately lead to non-functional municipalities,” he said.

If North Mitrovica’s Serbs can be convinced to vote in Sunday’s re-run, they will elect a local mayor as well as representatives for the Union of Serb Councils, created to represent most of the 120,000 Serbs across Kosovo under the April agreement. Some in Pristina have expressed concerns that the association’s close ties to Belgrade could undermine the state of Kosovo.

In North Mitrovica, Ivanovic supports the new association but is critical of the Belgrade government’s calls for Serbs in Kosovo to vote only for members of an approved “Serbia” list.

“For the democratic process, it is important to have a full spectrum [of parties] – not to have this one-party list, like in Communist times,” he said. “Now we need a proper campaign, competing on ideas and personalities.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera.

Kosovo Cries Out for Change

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.

Kosovo’s Footballing Allegiances

A recent match between Switzerland and Albania included players whose home nation is not yet recognised by FIFA

With less than a quarter of an hour to go in Switzerland’s recent World Cup qualifier against Albania in Lucerne, Granit Xhaka was presented with a glorious chance to put the home side 3-0 up. With the goal at his mercy, the usually clinical Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder shot tamely at the keeper. ‘Shqipëria! Shqipëria!’ (Albania! Albania!) sang thousands of flag-waving Albanian fans behind the goal.

After the match, which finished 2-0, Xhaka, who was born in eastern Kosovo, was asked live on Albanian television if his miss was intentional. Xhaka demurred, offering only ‘no comment’, but the player was less circumspect on the demands of playing against a nation most ethnic Albanian Kosovans identify so strongly with. ‘It is not easy,’ the 20-year-old who left Kosovo for Switzerland as a youngster said, ‘we have the same blood. My father and mother are Albanian and all the other Albanians that know us here know what we are.’

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo does not have a fully-fledged national team of its own. Despite the 2008 declaration of independence being recognised by over 90 countries, Kosovo is not been allowed to apply for membership of FIFA or UEFA. For Kosovan players and fans alike, the makeshift Kosovo national side that has played a handful of low-key matches against the likes of Monaco and Saudi Arabia is no substitute for competitive international football.

The Switzerland clash was probably the most eagerly anticipated game in Kosovo’s history. In the run-up to the match, Kosovan state television incessantly ran adverts for ‘Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia against Switzerland’, a reflection of the number, and diversity, of ethnic Albanians in both line-ups.

No fewer than nine players of Kosovan extraction played in Lucerne, including Albanian captain Lorik Cana – once of Sunderland and now with Lazio – and, for Switzerland, Bayern Munich hitman Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami. The Swiss also boasted two Albanians born in Macedonia, Admir Mehmedi and Blerim Xhemajli.

Switzerland’s Kosovan players have made no secret of their allegiance to both their homeland and Albania. Shaqiri plays with three flags sewn onto his boots: Switzerland, Albania, and Kosovo. Behrami has said previously that he would like to play for an independent Kosovo national team. In the build-up to the game the head of the Albanian FA Armand Duka described ethnic Albanians playing for Switzerland as ‘traitors’ for not opting to play for Albania. Gianni De Biasi, Albania’s Italian coach, concurred

If Duka’s comments were intended to provoke the Albanian fans, which made up around two-thirds of the 15,000-strong crowd in Lausanne, they had the desired effect. Missiles, including coins, rained down from the stands, with Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami singled out for special abuse.

After the game Shaqiri, who pointedly did not celebrate after opening the scoring, said fans that called him a traitor ‘do not know the reality’. The statement was widely interpreted as a reference to long-standing allegations that Duka demanded bribes from the families of expatriate Kosovan players that wanted to be considered for the Albanian national team.

Albanian football is already benefitting from Kosovan footballing prowess. As well as Cana, Vorskla Poltava’s Armend Dallku and onetime Burnley signing Besart Berisha are among a number of Kosovans that regularly turn out for the Albanian national side. Attendances at Albania games have been buoyed by coach loads of Kosovan fans coming down the newly-minted $1billion ‘patriotic highway’ connecting Pristina and Tirana. Upwards of 5,000 Kosovans regularly make the four-hour journey for internationals, often outnumbering local Albanians inside the moth-eaten Qemal Stafa stadium.

The qualifier in Lucerne took place on the same day as a high-level conference in Pristina to mark the end of the international community’s supervision of Kosovan independence. Under the banner of ‘Chapter Closed in the Balkans’, a host of politicians and diplomats discussed Kosovo’s future. Football is, belatedly, being recongised as an important part of integrating Kosovo internationally. Without United Nations recognition, Kosovo cannot apply for FIFA or EUFA membership. In May, Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play non-competitive games against FIFIA members (much to the chagrin of Serbia, the antagonist in the 1999 war).

As Pristina’s relations with Belgrade slowly improve so too do the prospects of a Kosovan national side. Ahead of a FIFA executive committee meeting in Zurich in September, all nine Kosovans that appeared in Lausanne signed an open letter to Blatter in support of Kosovo playing full internationals. Kosovo certainly has the talent, as the young Kosovans making names for themselves across Europe attests. Whether Europe’s newest state gets the opportunity remains to be seen.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes magazine www.wsc.co.uk