They’re renewing the road from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, to Peja in the west of the country. It used to be a winding and pot-holed single carriageway, offering a journey length that varied by a hundred percent depending on the balance of blacked-out Mercedeses, horses-and-carts and wedding convoys you encountered. It’s going to be a sweeping dual carriageway, bridging the country’s three great valleys and three political heartlands in record time. At the moment it’s neither, and the journey in from the airport crosses a wasteland of muddy tracks and Ozymandian flyover pillars.
The new roads will bring Europe closer to Kosovo in more ways than one. But the country is in the middle of a series of transitions: politically, between subjection and self-determined democracy; economically, between derided but comfortably entrenched socialism and the free-market; culturally, between languid Ottoman or hardy highland traditions and whatever it is that Slovenia, Germany or America can offer; and socially, between the old structures and the new openness of globalism, between family and Facebook.
In each transition process, Kosovo squelches along muddy tracks. In politics, Kosovo is a functioning democracy, but one where policy issues have yet to supplant big man factionalism and where some are still only asking what their country can do for them. The structure of Kosovo’s liberal free market economy has won international praise, but structure means little as yet to the 45 percent of the population who have to get by on less than a euro and a half per day (last year’s World Bank figures). A vibrant cultural identity continues to develop, with September’s new Prishtina Film Festival building on Prizren’s established Dokufest and a rash of dramatic, musical, literary and artistic experiences available in little cafes and galleries and theatres; but the multi-ethnic diversity of Kosovo’s cultural history is not fully acknowledged, and in the face of unrestricted development of cheap and anonymous Eurotrash housing only a few NGOs are pushing for the sustainable preservation and use of the remaining Ottoman buildings, traditional highland fortified houses, and natural beauties of the country. Socially, the acceleration of capitalism and urbanisation and democracy has put new strains between country and town, men and women, old and young.
In its reaction to the international community, there are signs that Kosovo is starting to question the international road design. Before independence had been arranged and declared, the Government would by and large do what it was told in order to keep the Europeans happy. Now – over the international community’s pedantic and painstaking efforts with Serbia to preserve the old opacities of Kosovo’s constitutional status, for example – the Government is starting to push back.
Until now, the possibility of a European identity for Kosovo seemed to offer an enticing opportunity to leapfrog the residual complications of its former Yugoslav one. Kosovo’s nascent Europeanness, in official statements and the effort to develop new institutions with EU standards and guidance, showed that she was looking west and saw herself in a long-term relationship with the EU. But the EU’s intermittent flashes of ankle, and promises of settling down in the end, will start to lose their charm. Ten years after liberation, the reality of the hurdles for EU membership, and the impact of the wider expansion debate involving south-eastern Europe and Turkey, will make some in Kosovo take a harder-nosed approach. One Kosovan political observer notes “a growing number of individuals in Kosovo that believe that immediate progress does not depend on meeting goals and an agenda set by EC and regional cooperation but on strengthening direct ties with Kosovo’s primary allies – Albania, US, UK, and Turkey – on issues of security and economy”.
A change of course is extremely unlikely. The optimism and potential represented in Saatchi&Saatchi’s new ‘Kosovo: Young Europeans’ advertising campaign reflects the instinctive attitude of the majority, Kosovo’s unique selling point and her best hope for future stability. The Commission’s recently-expressed desire for “practical measures to help improve the lives of all Kosovo citizens” is a positive sign. But the EU should not be surprised by more discernment and less enthusiasm as the years pass and the essential questions of identity linger. The Commission’s decision in July to offer visa free access to the Schengen area to Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia but not Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo is easily mis-represented as an anti-Muslim measure. As one Albanian journalist says: “Ratko Mladic, still hunted for Europe’s worst crime since the second world war, could theoretically go to Belgrade and get a visa for Europe; the families of his 7,000 victims could not”. The measure discriminates against Kosovo, and gives it an identity it does not recognise. Kosovo just does not see herself as a Muslim state – rather a young European one for which Islam is an important part of a rich cultural inheritance. Regardless of the hysteria and ignorance of right-wing commentators elsewhere, Islamic extremism has simply not featured in a Kosovo where the vast majority would resist furiously anything that called into question their inclination towards the west. But if Europe continues to take Kosovo for granted, imposing the glacial pace of its diplomacy on the perceived reality of independence and not offering a tangible return for good behaviour, a tiny minority might start to respond to the generous Islamist charity and isolated preaching of radicalism that have hitherto had no national impact. It’s up to the EU to mind its own membership policy, and its jurassic pragmatism may be the only way to outlast the truly intractable questions of Kosovo’s status. But it does not take much to remind Albanians that, to their great poet-priest-politician Gjergj Fishta, Europe was the “ageing whore”.
It’s perhaps understandable that, as has been the case for the two hundred years of European engagement in the Balkans, the preoccupations of interveners and local nationals are played out in parallel but separate worlds. But if it doesn’t pay a little attention to the Kosovo of the Kosovans, Europe risks seeming bizarre and out of touch, and creating a polished shell of a multi-ethnic free-market democracy that remains hollow.
Corruption is the most dramatic illustration. As one senior politician puts it: “this is a captive state”. The Commission’s October progress report on Kosovo was blunt on the subject, highlighting a series of specific shortcomings and generalising that: “Corruption remains prevalent in many areas in Kosovo and continues to be a very serious concern.” The attitude of Kosovans is sharper: a joke doing the rounds urges a vote for the opposition in the forthcoming local elections because it would bring the ‘commission’ (bribe) payable on a tender down from thirty percent to the traditional ten.
Corruption’s corrosive effect on public trust and public engagement (not to mention public finances) in Kosovo is not funny. Nor is the fatalism which leads individuals to accept corruption, to draw a false distinction between grand public fraud and little private nepotistic peccadiloes, and to present ‘corruption’ as an all-powerful witchcraft responsible for everything that goes wrong. As one Kosovan analyst says over coffee in one of Prishtina’s latest see-and-be-seen cafes, “Kosovars must start blaming themselves”. But there persists the dangerous attitude that if the mighty international community isn’t going to intervene seriously against corruption, individual Kosovans can hardly be expected to try to muster the strength for it. (By way of comparison, former UN political officer in Afghanistan Nick Horne wrote recently for The Times that “among the greatest mistakes of the international community has been its laissez-faire approach to the corruption, cronyism and venality”.)
This gets to the heart of why the international community intervenes anywhere. An international community pre-occupation with stability to the exclusion of governance and other issues would be understandable. The world intervened in Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing, not because of concerns about public finances. From a self-interested EU point of view, what Kosovo does in its private life is a much smaller concern than whether instability creates regional security, economic, or criminal challenges. But the disparity will make the people of Kosovo think that Europe doesn’t really understand, and is pushing good behaviour in increasingly irrelevant areas while tolerating bad in areas that really affect them.
The people of Kosovo know the real horror of inter-ethnic violence and tension; but they resent the ubiquitous NATO public information billboards – everyone holding hands under the stern gaze of an Italian armoured personnel carrier – that imply they are all incipient nationalist hooligans. (This is only an extension of the persistent fallacy that the troubles of the Balkans are caused solely by eternal and unavoidable inter-ethnic hatreds.) International aid that insists on the multi-ethnic benefit of a given project is well-meant, but patronising and unhelpful to a village that has a perfectly stable inter-ethnic security situation but lacks adequate water supply, electric power and local economy. The Commission’s October report discusses the environment before it discusses energy, and declares that one of Kosovo’s two main power stations “will need to be decommissioned by 2017, to comply with the Large Combustion Plant Directive”. This is an important message from a world justifiably concerned about climate change and pollution, but a frustrating one for a country that simply does not have enough power for basic needs, and has seen the international community spend hundreds of millions of euros on an energy sector whose 2009 generation capacity is little different from 1999. In Kosovan eyes, meanwhile, the delicate international manoeuvring over Belgrade’s influence on northern Kosovo looks like dangerous compromise on an existential and supposedly settled issue; at the same time the European rule of law mission continues its peculiar feud with the Vetevendosje (self-determination) protest group. Vetevendosje’s methods have recently stooped to criminal damage, undoubtedly worthy of prosecution; but the international community could seem clumsy in its handling of what has been the only organisation consistently to offer an intellectual challenge to the international role and settlement in Kosovo. Keeping activists imprisoned for 90 days without trial risks turning hooligans into martyrs.
Marooned in a taxi in a puddle on the former and future road into town, the worry begins to grow that the money and the interest will run out and that Kosovo will find itself abandoned forever between old and new. Kosovo has been transformed since 1999, and the EU has helped to nourish a stability with which it can feel pride and relief. The country is, so far, a state-building success for a Union still developing its intervention CV. Now, the temptation will grow to focus personnel and aid elsewhere, on challenges that are more pressing, more existential for a Europe in a world polarised between Obama and Putin. But the international community has yet to allow final clarity on Kosovo’s status, leaving a lurking uncertainty to gnaw at the reality of independence. Kosovo has not escaped the risk of falling between stools, into poverty, corruption and stagnation. Bosnia today offers a model of energy-sapping unfinished business.
It is a truism of Balkan analysis that any given year is going to be crucial for the region. Perhaps the same is true of Europe. 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin wall collapsing, and with it the old certainties of Europe’s identity – the clear barrier in the east, and the comfortable bulwark across the Atlantic to the west. It is harsh to keep reminding Luxembourg’s Jacques Poos of his optimistic claim that the Balkan wars were the hour of Europe. But the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo have been significant for Europe’s identity after all: small and new nations with little tradition of international reach have played their part in NATO and EU missions; fitfully and unevenly, the EU has reached out and brought new nations closer; Europe has been trying on new clothes. 2009 offers another challenge too, another opportunity: the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty will bring a transformation of Europe’s foreign policy arrangements. It’s a chance for Kosovo, which must exchange passivity for dynamic pragmatism, and the other states of the region to bring new activism and robustness to their engagement with the Union. It’s a chance for the EU to bring new clarity and drive to its engagement with its nearest and most pressing neighbours. If it can demonstrate its relevance and its understanding, the Union has the clout and the resources and the inspiration to achieve the enduring stabilities sought both by itself and by the people of Kosovo.
Robert Wilton was advisor to two prime ministers of Kosovo from 2006 to 2008. He has worked on south-eastern Europe for a decade. His Balkan analysis – and his fiction – have been widely published. He is co-founder of The Ideas Partnership, an NGO stimulating and supporting projects in education, cultural heritage and sustainable tourism.