- - Thursday, February 15, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Rows of blue and yellow balloons matching the colors of Kosovo’s 10-year-old flag may festoon the main pedestrian drag in downtown Pristina this week marking the country’s first decade as an independent state, but the feeling on the streets is decidedly gray.

Many say they are not in a festive mood to mark the anniversary Saturday, a day overshadowed by doubts about the political and economic road ahead and an inability to exorcize demons of the past.

“It’s a very important day for us — my parents dreamed of having their own state, we fought for this,” said Hermonda Kalludra, 25, a graduate student in Pristina. “I feel quite emotional, but I cannot say that we can celebrate … because there hasn’t been that much progress.”

For a brief geopolitical moment, Kosovo was the focus of global attention, the bitter struggle of its ethnic Albanian majority to break from Serbia drawing the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations into a shooting war in the heart of the Balkans.

But today, Kosovars are frustrated over their flailing prospects to join the EU and to become a U.N. member — Kosovo’s independence has not been recognized by Belgrade, and its allies that include Russia and China — and the quest to become a “normal” nation seems more distant than ever.

At the same time, people say they are becoming increasingly angry over isolation from the rest of Europe, thanks to a strict visa regime that has lasted for years. Kosovars are the only nationality in the Balkans who cannot travel to the 26-nation visa-free “Schengen zone” in Europe, as well as most other countries around the world, visa-free. The wait for permission can be up to eight months.

A shocking reminder of the distance Kosovo still has to go is the assassination of Oliver Ivanovic. The Kosovo Serb politician, who was considered a moderate, was killed in a drive-by shooting Jan. 16 outside his office in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica.

Nationalist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has denounced the unsolved killing as an “act of terror.”

Some blame the dour mood on a succession of ineffective governments in Pristina for not doing more to fight corruption, meet conditions set by the EU for visa liberalization, and focus on basics such as economic growth, quality health care and better schools.

“People are not up for celebrating — it’s not like Feb. 17, 2008, when everyone was in the streets,” said Agron Demi, a policy analyst at GAP Institute, a Pristina think tank. “One reason is the economic situation is not very good and another is corruption, which is very high. The small jails of Kosovo would not have enough space for all the corrupt people to be jailed.

“When talking about 10 years [of independence], usually I compare it to the hopes that we had and what we could have achieved if we had a proper government,” said Mr. Demi. “We could have created a much better economic situation, or at least [the government] did not have to give such big promises as they used to.”

Weak economy

The youth unemployment rate in Kosovo hovers around 60 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program, which also considers Kosovo’s weak economy as the greatest threat to long-term stability. The lack of employment opportunities was the biggest motivator for tens of thousands of Kosovars leaving home for the European Union over the past five years.

“Ten years ago, we had happier times, and now we started to be demoralized because there is no income. It’s a bad situation for the youth,” said Lirie Shehu, 63, a retired tradeswoman in the capital. “They are graduating from [university], and there are no jobs available for them. I just feel sorry … they don’t have much opportunity here.”

The Kosovo government says it is working to improve the situation.

“I agree that this is a long process, but we are at the beginning of it, and I believe the work done in the past 10 years is leading us to the right direction for the future,” Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj said in an email.

Factors beyond the control of the Pristina government have also hindered Kosovo’s progress, he added, including the diplomatic headwinds created by the stalemate with Serbia.

“It’s crucial for the peace and stability of the region that all Balkan countries become part of the EU, but we have to be careful of Serbia’s and Russia’s intentions, who use the region as a geostrategic chessboard, which risks destabilization of the Western Balkans and its European [opportunities],” Mr. Hoxhaj said.

Memories of the 1998-99 war still cast a shadow over this anniversary, especially for the older generation of people who lived under Serb occupation until NATO drove Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo after 78 days of airstrikes in 1999, ending the war.

Older Kosovars such as Milazim Alshiqi remain thankful for American help in liberating Kosovo from Serbia, but he is not satisfied with what his country has achieved in its first decade of sovereignty.

“We experience the 10th anniversary as a unique pleasure, for which we gave many lives for centuries — at the end, the possibility to liberate ourselves from our Serb enemy was given to us by America,” said a tearful Mr. Alshiqi, 62, a former telecom worker in Pristina. “Kosovo is way better than it used to be, but it is not as it should have been either.”

About 4,000 NATO troops, including 685 American soldiers, still are posted in Kosovo to preserve peace and stability as part of the longest peacekeeping operation in NATO’s history — longer than Afghanistan. Still, ethnic tensions are on the rise, especially in the north where the bulk of Kosovo’s Serbs live, and where the rule of law is mostly nonexistent.

Meanwhile, former Kosovo liberation fighters are bracing for indictments on war crimes charges to be handed out in the coming weeks by prosecutors at The Hague through a war crimes court backed by the U.S. and EU. Known as the Special Court, it is likely to target many figures who are serving in the government.

Many Kosovars view the court as unfair and discriminatory.

Frustrations boiled over in December when, in a move that took Washington and Brussels by surprise, lawmakers pushed to repeal the law authorizing the Special Court before backing down because of pressure from the Trump administration.

In spite of it all, Ms. Kalludra, the student, insists she remains optimistic for her generation and for the country’s future — even if it takes a while.

“Now people are going abroad to study, so they are more open now, the society and mentality is more open,” she said. “Pristina is also becoming a very European city. So I am hopeful in that sense that things are going to change. And we are the change.”

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