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.

Slovenia prepares for summer of discontent

Ljubljana, Slovenia – In Slovenia, few traits are as highly prized as gospodariti, literally the ability to manage finances prudently. Gospodariti was often cited to explain Slovenia’s emergence as an industrial motor of Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav system during the Cold War. As Yugoslavia collapsed in bloody fratricide,gospodariti again came to the rescue, helping a newly independent nation of just two million people to fashion a flourishing economy on the edge of a warzone.

Two decades later Slovenia’s cherished reputation for fiscal rectitude has, like the status of its government bonds, been reduced to junk.

On May 29, the European Commission told Slovenia that its heavily indebted banking system would require an independent review. The same report gave Slovenia until 2015 to bring its budget deficit below the European Union threshold of 3 percent of gross domestic product.
ljubljana-slovenia
The Commission also called on Prime Minister, Alenka Bratusek, to push forward with a package of fiscal proposals announcedlast month. These measures include the sale of fifteen publicly-owned businesses, a 2 percent increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) and the creation of a “bad bank”.

Slovenia appears to have staved off the short-term threat of becoming the sixth Eurozone member to receive a bailout — but everything is far from green in this picturesque Alpine state.

Difficult transition

Ljubljana, Slovenia’s compact capital, is peppered with empty apartment blocks and unused retail units. Across the country, emigration is on the rise. Unemployment, historically low even after communism, stands at over 13 percent. Lack of infrastructure investment has terminally weakened a once powerful manufacturing sector.

Slovenia has twice been in recession since 2009. This year the economy is expected to shrink by around 2 percent. Prospects for growth are “weak even in a quite long medium term horizon,” a leading Slovenian economist who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in Ljubljana, the capital. “We have a contracting domestic sector and an exporting sector that is slowly losing momentum.”

When Slovenia gained its independence in 1991 it was by far the most developed of the former communist economies of Eastern Europe. Tito’s 1974 reforms of Yugoslavia’s socialist system helped open the country up, socially and economically. Taking advantage of its industrial workforce and its location between Central Europe and the Balkans, international companies such as Bayer and Renault built factories in Slovenia.

We are now in the state of shock that Slovenia avoided 20 years ago. Maybe our story is proof that you can’t change systems without a shock.

Primoz Cirman, economics writer,

“We had communism which was not as severe as in other countries,” said Primoz Cirman, an economics writer for Dnevnik, a leading Slovenian newspaper daily newspaper. “The fist was not as iron as it was in other countries, it was more mellow.”

In the early 1990s Slovenia’s first generation of post-independence leaders looked to consolidate the country’s economic strength within its borders, rather than follow the privatisation drive in much of Eastern Europe. “For the first time in our history we were the masters of our own property. We thought ‘let’s not waste it, let’s privatise slowly,” said Cirman.

The roots of Slovenia’s current crisis lie in this uneasy transition from socialism to the free market. Many of Slovenia’s best companies remained in the hands of the state and a new generation of ‘managers’. Many of these managerial executives took out huge loans to buy controlling stakes in the businesses they ran.

Slovenian banks relied on the cheap credit that flowed in the wake of joining the European Union in 20004 and, particularly, the Euro currency three years later to fund these managerial buyouts. When the credit crunch hit in 2008 loans stopped performing.

Attempts by Slovenian bank to plug the gap in their finances by tightening lending to the national economy has contributed to the slowdown in Slovenia but not solved the country’s banking crisis. Its two leading banks, Nova Ljubljanska Banka and Nova Kreditna Banka Maribor, are badly in need of recapitalisation. Last month, Nova Ljubljanska Banka’s Chief Executive Officer Janko Medja said that the bank would transfer €1.3bn ($1.69bn) of non-performing loans to the new “bad” bank.

“Slovenia’s problem was not the (global) economic crisis it was the naivety of the banking sector,” said Igor Luksic, a professor of politics at Ljubljana University and president of the opposition Social Democrats. “There was a great appetite for real estate and the great appetite of managers who wanted to buy their companies. That made the crisis of the banking sector.”

‘State of shock’

The crisis has also laid bare the close connections between business and politics in Slovenia. Earlier this year, Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, was forced to step down after a report from a national anti-corruption agency identified irregularities in his tax returns. Ninety-four per cent of Slovenians consider bribes to be a normal practice in business, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young.

It is not all bad news for Slovenia. At 56 percent, public debt is well below the EU average. The Slovenian banking sector is just 1.6 times GDP. There are some success business stories, especially in technology. But with an export-led economy and a paucity of lending at home, there is no end in sight for the Slovenia’s economic travails, despite Wednesday’s cautious green light from Brussels.

“The economy has collapsed. We have a corrupted political class and a managerial system,” said Franc Trcek, professor of sociology at the University of Ljubljana. “People have said that they have enough. At the same time half of the people will go and vote for the old parties. The other half are in apathy.”

On the streets of Slovenia, apathy has given way to frustration. Last autumn, a series of protests broke out over the decision to introduce speed cameras in Maribor, a once prosperous industrial city near the border with Austria. Thousands took to the streets in what became known as the “Maribor Uprising”.

For the first time since Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, riot police fired tear gas on its citizens. Maribor’s mayor, Franc Kangler, was forced to step down, but not before the protests had spread across Slovenia, contributing to the downfall of the Jansa government in Ljubljana.

The demonstrations have died down, for now, but journalist Primoz Cirman believes they could reignite again. “The fire is out but the fuel is still there,” he said as a summer shower pours down on the outdoor market on Petkovsek Embankment in Ljubljana.

As for Slovenia, Cirman said that the current crisis shows that the country didn’t manage the transition from communism to capitalism as well as it – and the rest of the world – had thought. “We are now in the state of shock that Slovenia avoided 20 years ago. Maybe our story is proof that you can’t change systems without a shock.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera