PRISTINA, Kosovo — Mentor Hajrizi was saying goodbye to six of his relatives at the city bus station as they departed for the Serbian-Hungarian border, where they planned to illegally cross into the European Union.
He likely will not be seeing them back in his hometown of Vushtrri in northern Kosovo anytime again soon.
“My family needs a better life,” said Mr. Hajrizi, 24, a graduate student, citing the lack of opportunity and employment in Europe’s newest country. “They decided to take the road to Europe.”
Mr. Hajrizi’s sister, brother and their children are part of an exodus of 50,000 people who left this tiny Balkan country of 1.8 million since late last year, according to the Kosovo Intelligence Agency, though unofficial estimates are twice as high.
The departures illustrate how many Kosovars have lost faith in their country, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, less than 10 years after a bloody war that ended after NATO airstrikes pounded the Serbian army into submission. After independence, Kosovo experienced a surge of economic growth as the country rebuilt. But stagnation has now taken hold as the country experiences what some describe as the worst political and economic crisis since independence, prompting the largest mass exodus since the refugee crisis during the 1998-99 war.
The country of 1.8 million suffers from an unemployment rate of 40 percent, according to the World Bank. In March, the United Nations ranked Kosovo as the fourth-biggest source of asylum-seekers in the world after Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, with Kosovo the only country on the list not facing mass violence and civil war. The vast majority of the emigrants are looking for work.
A recent Public Pulse survey conducted by USAID and the U.N. found that 52 percent of Kosovars ranked unemployment as the largest problem facing their nation. “Everybody’s got unemployment on their minds,” said Andrew Russell, U.N. development coordinator in Kosovo.
Kosovo’s failure to launch economically could post at least a small political headache for Hillary Rodham Clinton given her husband’s close association with the Kosovar cause. Mr. Clinton helped organize and lead NATO’s 1998 bombing campaign that eventually drove Yugoslavian forces under President Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo, setting in motion the political process that led to full independence a decade later.
Washington remains a strong supporter of Pristina, breaking ground just this week on a new $215 million permanent embassy on a 12-acre site in the heart of the Kosovo capital. The new complex will include a chancery, a U.S. Marine Corps residence, a support annex and utility building and facilities for U.S. diplomats and staff, the department said.
But Serbia, which considers Kosovo part of its cultural and ethnic heartland, has never recognized Kosovo’s independence, and other countries, including Russia, Greece and even U.S. allies such as Spain and Georgia, have also refused to recognize the new state. The diplomatic limbo only makes the task of attracting international support for the economy more difficult.
The crisis is especially tragic because Kosovo boasts the youngest population in an increasingly graying Europe. More than 70 percent of Kosovars are under the age of 35, according to the World Bank. Yet that youth has not translated into economic dynamism. Around 60 percent of Kosovars between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed.
After the high hopes sparked by the successful break from Serbia, many of Kosovo’s citizens, especially students, say they feel disenfranchised and have little faith in their leaders.
Kosovo’s institutions are notoriously corrupt. Last month, demonstrators took the streets to protest against electricity price increases and other measures. In January, violent clashes broke out after the government decided to postpone nationalizing the country’s largest mine, which critics say could employ more workers if it were under government control.
More than 80 percent believed family connections, bribes, political connections and other non-merit-based factors were the most important factors in finding a job, the Public Pulse survey found.
“Even if you’re a good student, if your grades are better than other students, if you don’t know anyone in the government, you will stay at home,” said Diadon Berisha, 20, a third-year student at the University of Pristina.
A photographer from Pristina, Veton Krasniqi, 30, said he had few options but to leave Kosovo. He and his educated friends couldn’t build careers at home.
“What should I do here?” said Mr. Krasniqi before he and his 18-year-old cousin boarded a bus bound for Hungary at Pristina’s bus station. “We cannot stay here because we don’t have any future here. We don’t have enough money to live for one month.”
No relief in sight
Future jobseekers don’t see much hope on the horizon.
Besarta Jashari, 17, is due to graduate from high school in Ferizaj, Kosovo’s third-largest city, this month. She plans on enrolling in the University of Pristina but remains undecided on what to study.
Prospective University of Pristina students apply to academic departments, meaning incoming freshmen know what degree they’ll earn before they even start school. Ms. Jashari has until July to make a decision, but can’t decide which major would help her land her a job.
“I’m very worried about my future,” she admitted at a cafe in downtown Ferizaj. “Wherever you go, you’ll be unemployed.”
Mr. Russell and his U.N. colleagues are working on strategies to improve what he calls the “central issue right now in Kosovo: loss of hope, loss of confidence that this place can grow and develop.”
The U.N. has established public and private partnerships that have created 13,000 jobs in the seven years since Kosovo declared independence. But Mr. Russell admits that more needs to be done.
“We need to scale up,” he said. “We need to raise our level of ambition, but in a way that allows the youth themselves to be in the driver’s seat, to develop their sense of confidence, their sense of hope, their sense of optimism, their sense of engagement.”
Meanwhile, Germany and other Western European governments have moved to deport Kosovars, showing migrants they stood little chance of receiving asylum. Planes carrying Kosovar asylum-seekers from Germany land regularly at Pristina’s airport. But every day, people board buses, hire migrant smugglers and find other ways to leave for greener pastures.
Ms. Jashari, though, would prefer to remain in Kosovo and help develop her young country. But if she can’t find work after she completes her studies, she knows she’ll need to leave.
“In Kosovo, dreams are just dreams,” she said.