When I was serving as Kosovo’s Minister of Education a few years ago, I gave a series of lectures on Kosovo’s history at LSE. My short stays in London were marked by visits to the FCO, and to the embassies of the foreign countries with whom Kosovo has a dialogue. Diplomat magazine became a companion of sorts between meetings and interviews – a nifty read on the stories from the diplomatic circuit. I am therefore proud to have the opportunity to write an article for this publication, as part of a report on Kosovo, Europe’s youngest state.
How does one describe Kosovo in 2011? We have been independent for over three years and many readers will remember the war of 1998-99 that ended with NATO actions against the Serbian government to halt war crimes against the Kosovars. But over a decade has gone by since those tragic events, and perhaps less is known of how the newly independent Kosovo stands up as a sovereign nation. Is Kosovo both an independent country and a successful society? The headlines on Kosovo have unfortunately been dominated by the troubles in the north and our ongoing dialogue with the Republic of Serbia.
But Kosovo is very different from the image presented by the Western press. A fine British journalist once said that Kosovo is very ‘counterintuitive’, and I must admit I liked that description.
Take our economic data for example. At €6,500 our GDP per capita is neither at the top nor the bottom of the list – we are ranked 103rd in the world. Some other data may look a bit scarier, like the reported 40 per cent unemployment and the fact that 15 per cent of society is considered to be living in extreme poverty.
These figures will improve with the publication of the Kosovo Census 2011. The census is Kosovo’s first since 1981 under the supervision of Eurostat, and has already demonstrated that there are fewer Kosovars living in the country than previously thought. Kosovo has around 1.8 million residents, while previous estimates were at 2 million people. The census also showed that around one third of Kosovars now live abroad, in all corners of the world, from New Zealand to Norway and South Africa to Brazil. Entire neighbourhoods in New York, London, Zurich and Frankfurt are populated by Kosovars who have fled the oppression and the war of the 1990s. Their remittances provide an essential buffer system of informal social assistance which greatly improves the reality behind the formal poverty statistics. Kosovo’s GDP has been growing even in these times of financial crisis, slowing down to 4 per cent at the height of crisis in 2008, but jumping back to a projected 6 per cent for 2011 and 7 per cent for 2012. A recent IMF report on Kosovo rightly concludes that ‘large remittances from Kosovars living abroad boosted consumption, while foreign direct investment fuelled activity in particular in the services sector and in construction.’ The IMF also stated that ‘Kosovo enjoys not only low levels of public debt, but the government also holds cash buffers in the form of deposits with the central bank.’
In recent times, government spending has been a big concern for international markets and creditors. As a proportion of GDP, Kosovo’s debt is modest compared to its neighbours. Experts note that this is due to Kosovo’s young and entrepreneurial population and the fact that the country does not need to bear the burden of difficult long-term obligations to pensioners, war veterans or creditors which most European countries do.
Kosovo is yet to privatise its major assets in publicly owned telecommunications, tourism, resources as well as major energy and mining concessions which have already attracted a solid round of interested potential partners. In this commodities-driven age, Kosovo may prove to be an essential source of many underground resources. There is also a high level of public investment in infrastructure projects such as rebuilding schools and the construction of the major motorway to the Adriatic coast, implemented by the American and Turkish construction companies Bechtel and Enka – with €1 billion of investment from the people of Kosovo, who are keen to connect with major communication routes and ports.
If you look at Kosovo carefully, rather than just scratching the surface, you will be even more surprised. A weekend visit might even change your mind. Kosovo is in the midst of several transitions and in a major nation-building mood. Prishtina is a vibrant city with over 1000 cafes, restaurants and teashops. The young population ensures a lively atmosphere. Most of the population speaks a second language, usually either English or German, but don’t be surprised if you find Swedish, French or Spanish speakers at the next table in a coffee-shop. The people are passionate and there is plenty of debate about our new country’s identity. Kosovo is a modern tale of soul-searching and coming of age.
When I speak about Kosovo, I usually prefer not to refer to the war or military fatigue because I am keen to tell the story of the future. For this reason I was unsure about the cover for this issue, but then I found out that the graphic designer was Mirko Ilic, a Bosnian designer who was a guest of this year’s documentary film festival Dokufest in the beautiful city of Prizren, and I thought better. Dokufest is another example of the new Kosovo; it is a film festival with a Sundance-like atmosphere, a young, hip crowd and many good documentary films. This year’s 10th anniversary of Dokufest featured a film by music star PJ Harvey.
This is the new Kosovo: a counterintuitive and dynamic new European country. Although there are transitional problems, there are also political, societal, cultural and commercial opportunities only available in these transitional times.