What I had envisioned as a standard delegation trip to Europe’s youngest state, the Republic of Kosovo, with a cross-party group from the Landtag of North Rhine-Westphalia turned out to be a truly unique experience that encompassed insights into all relevant socioeconomic and political processes a society in transition has to offer.
With a population of a mere 1.8 million, landlocked Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008. Within Europe’s youngest nation, also in demographic terms, lies great potential, both for advancement and conflict.
Excellent contacts into the depths of Kosovan politics and civil society provided us with the chance to comprehend this multi-layered country in search of a way forward.
The Kosovan elephant in the room
Let us cut to the chase: Kosovo’s unresolved ethnic conflict between the majority population made up of Kosovo Albanians and the country’s most important minority, Kosovo Serbs, is the biggest impediment to political and socioeconomic progress. Kosovo Albanians represent over 90 percent of the current population, while Kosovo Serbs, once the majority in a disintegrating Serbian state, find themselves reduced to a five percent minority.
One example: Cultural and religious sites have been the trigger for conflict ever since. Kosovo Serbs stress that even with international guards their Orthodox sites can be vulnerable: In 2004 ethnic-Albanian rioters attacked historic churches in Prizren and elsewhere. Kosovo Albanians retort that the inciters of that riot have been prosecuted, while Serbs have never apologised for the religious vandalism which they perpetrated. A vicious circle of mutual resentment and accusations that needs to be broken.
Add the other minorities to the picture, most importantly Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, great part of which live in appalling conditions, and one might grasp the full conflict potential of multi-ethnic Kosovo.
Kosovo, the incomplete state
Dragging out the past is not the way forward for Kosovo, that became evident during our visit, though several issues that are out of the government’s reach have to be resolved first. Take the question of Kosovar statehood, for example: To date only 111 countries recognise Kosovo. For entirely selfish reasons, five EU member states are still unwilling to fully recognise the Republic of Kosovo. These countries need to overcome their national viewpoint and accept reality: Only a strong pro-Kosovo stance renders the EU a legitimate and credible partner. The prospect of EU membership is a key factor of the internal healing process as it holds the power to unite Kosovo’s political establishment with the opposition. Only then can the other deeper-lying sources of conflict be properly addressed.
Another step forward would be granting Kosovan citizens much sought-after visa liberalisation for entering the EU. Once Kosovo fulfils all formal requirements set by Brussels (and it should do so this year) its citizens should not be denied access to the EU just because some member states’ governments feel their electorates do not approve. Scrapping visa restrictions is simply a matter of political fairness that will spur cultural and economic exchange.
In football crazy Kosovo, today’s admission to UEFA will also contribute to building a national identity, a process that Kosovo is in bitter need of.
The road the Kosovar statehood and identity is rocky: It was recently denied membership to UNESCO, UN’s cultural arm, and not by a slim margin: some 92 nations voted in favour, 50 voted against. Serbia was backed by its historic ally Russia in opposing the admission, which would have boosted Kosovo’s efforts to consolidate its status as an independent nation.
Kosovo needs a (digital) business model
However, Kosovo itself has a lot of homework to do, first and foremost its political elite. Systematic (!) corruption is one of the key obstacles to progress, which can only be solved by a long-lasting united anti-corruption campaign backed by all political forces. Unfortunately, parts of Kosovo’s fragmented party system, although safeguarding representation for all relevant minority groups, stick to clientelistic policy-making without looking at the bigger picture.
When talking to politicians and representatives from different parties and movements, one is confronted with internal division and a deeply entrenched “establishment-versus-opposition” mindset. This needs to be overcome quickly.
Another reason for the rather anachronistic party system surely is the EU’s “stability-over-democracy” approach, meaning that Brussels’ prime focus is on political stability rather than democratic evolution. As a result, people crave political change without knowing where to turn to. This is a recipe for failure. The EU should be more courageous and allow more democratic evolvement in Kosovo aiming at a smooth transition to a more open and accountable system. There are more than enough capable and (I suspect) willing politicians from both sides, government and opposition, to foster such a transition.
The Commission argues that stability is prioritised because the country’s fragile economy requires it. There is definitely some truth to this, yet democratic progress is as conducive to economic advances as political stability. A middle way should be found.
A new hope
Underneath the surface, Kosovo possesses untapped economic potential stemming from a young multilingual work force, an abundance of natural resources (minerals) and a sound banking sector.
Foreign investors should be looking into the promising IT sector that caters to Kosovans’ entrepreneurial spirit. For example, demand for call centre services is slowly rising taking advantage of people’s excellent language skills (quadrilingual Kosovars are no exception).
Still, much of the economic progress in the recent period has been based on donor aid and remittances, which is no foundation for a sustainable economic strategy. The government needs to step up efforts to provide a coherent (digital) business model for the country with special emphasis on youth employment (a so-called “digital agenda”). When trying to kick-start the economy, officials should focus on potential gains from the digital economy rather than headless, ecocidal mining for minerals.
In a nutshell, Kosovo is no success story yet, but things are steadily improving. Kosovo suffers from a bad reputation echoing prejudice rather than fact. Give Kosovo some well-deserved attention and visit the country, be it as a tourist or an investor.