Nonfiction

the traveller / Kosovo: Young and Restless

27 February 2015

On a dusty, sunbaked street in central Pristina, there is a bold block-letter monument that simply reads `NEWBORN’. It is, in part, a celebration of Kosovo’s recent independence, which was secured in 2008 after a century of upheaval. I would wish for such a monument to also symbolise the collective optimism and hope that new life usually brings – but after just seven years of independence from Serbia, it seems there is little cause for celebration amongst Kosovars. It may have won its independence, but the world’s second newest country – only South Sudan is younger – is losing its people and faces an uncertain future.

While Kosovo may be a recent addition to world maps, its people, culture and land have a long and turbulent history. In the last century alone, the tiny nation has been wrenched from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, incorporated into a newly formed Yugoslavia, occupied by Italy as part of wartime Albania, returned to communist Yugoslavia and – eventually – given substantial autonomous powers in 1974. The chaos reached its peak in the ‘90s, however, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević set about stripping the region of its autonomy. A ferocious war was sparked, quickly descending into atrocities perpetrated against civilians and the ethnic expulsion of Kosovars. NATO, fearing that the Serbs were on the verge of committing genocide against the Kosovars, intervened to subdue Serbian forces and lay the groundwork for a return of Kosovan land and a new independence.

Victory following a protracted struggle is, however, always bittersweet; the independence won by Kosovo is no exception. During the one year officially classified as wartime (armed conflict in the region lasted much longer), over 10,000 Kosovars were killed and some 800,000 more were expelled from the country or forcibly removed from their homes. Ancient towns were razed, monasteries and mosques destroyed. After the guns fell silent, leaders from both sides (most notably Milošević) faced international tribunals on charges of crimes against humanity. It is little wonder that Kosovars, having finally attained independence, want to make a fresh start – and it is this sentiment that the NEWBORN monument was supposed to encapsulate.

Unfortunately, the fresh start has brought with it fresh problems. Much of the world, including Russia, China, India and Serbia, refuses to recognise the state’s independence. The support received from the rest of the international community has been celebrated fittingly, with the Kosovan government repainting the NEWBORN monument in 2013 with the flags of all the states who have recognised Kosovo as a sovereign state. The grandness of this statement, however, has perhaps been undermined more recently by the graffiti gradually building up over the flags.

The infant state is definitely still unsteady on its feet. The violence may have ceased, but economic hardship, political instability and a general lack of opportunity are responsible for a new wave of Kosovan migration. This time the migration is voluntary, and also largely illegal. Although the national currency is the Euro, Kosovo is not within the Schengen zone: its citizens are unable to relocate easily or seek work in countries that are. For the average Kosovar, there is little hope for legitimate geographic mobility.

Squeezed in by their own tiny borders, squeezed out by other nations and lacking prospects at home, venturing north-west into the heart of Europe has become an option too attractive to ignore for many. Indeed, the Kosovo government estimates that in a period of just a few months from late 2014 to early 2015, some 40,000 citizens – out of a population of only 1.8 million – illegally migrated to EU countries.

With European benevolence increasingly stretched by the huge volume of refugees from Syria and North Africa (and in a political milieu increasingly defined by xenophobia and fear), Kosovar migrants aren’t seen as a high priority. EU residency is incredibly hard to come by for those Kosovars trying to leave poverty and unemployment behind them.

It seems that those Kosovars who leave are destined for a life on the run or enforced repatriation, while those who stay continue to struggle with little hope of respite. Unfortunately, the situation could easily worsen. Ethnic clashes with minority Serbs are a constant threat and the Serbian government – who doggedly dispute Kosovan sovereignty – are using their neighbour’s problems as political currency. They suggest that the flood of migrants and the scramble for Serbian passports is a sign that the territory should be returned to them. Others accuse the Kosovan government of deliberately manufacturing the migrant situation in order to secure greater visa freedom from the EU.

It’s a messy situation created by a messy set of variables. There’s no solution in sight: rather, another regional upheaval looks like a more likely outcome. There may yet be another rebirth for Kosovo and whatever form it takes, it will likely involve more heartbreak and hardship for ordinary Kosovars.

In the meantime, the word NEWBORN continues to be obscured by graffiti – and its promise is starting to fade. All that the monument symbolises seems to be melting away in the furnace that is Balkan politics.


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