Monday, May 05, 2008

Welcome to Pristina

On my first night in Pristina I did not expect to eat dinner in an Indian restaurant. However, after meeting a group of people who live here, a mixture of UN administrators, and NGO worker and a local civil servant, we were invited to have dinner at an Indian restaurant in Dragodan, the eastern quarter of the city.

The meal was nice, but it was not the finest Indian food I had ever had. Compared to what a city like London has to offer in terms of curry, the selection here was very limited and the flavours were bland. However, the presence of the Indian, Thai and Japanese restaurants, as well as pizzerias, shopping precincts and enough good-looking, well-dressed people walking the streets and occupying the coffee shops, indicates the distinctly cosmopolitan side of Pristina which I didn't expect.

When you consider other aspects of the city the above is not particularly surprising. The city has a huge international community of people who work for the likes of the UN, KFOR and the many NGOs which operate in Kosovo. This has brought a lot of money to Pristina, as well as a global variety of cultures. The salaries paid by the UN, for example, are much higher than those of the local population. Whereas a Kosovan civil servant will earn €200 to €250 a month, some UN officials are receiving $200,000 per year. Consequently, in a country with a struggling economy and around 40% unemployment, the money to be made in restaurants, coffee shops and the kind of slick bars you can find in Barcelona or London, has provoked a lot of development in the 'leisure' sector.

Of course this is not the ‘traditional’ Kosovan way of life. The cost of eating in a restaurant frequented by internationals prices many local people out. We went to a bar called Soul CafĂ© in which there were more foreign people there than Kosovans. Another bar, notoriously full of Brits and Americans, cost €3 for a beer – 1/50 of a Kosovan’s teacher’s monthly salary. Still, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kosovo wants to become part of the EU. Even though these cosmopolitan elements have sprung up largely because of the international presence in Pristina, Kosovan people take pride in them. There is a strong sense of aspiration in Kosovo. Why shouldn’t the city want some of the things that make the great capitals of the world so great? The population here is incredibly young. Something like 50% of the population is under 25. This demographic is a cause for concern, but with so many young people around it is not surprising that there is a lively and enjoyable atmosphere in the city.

However, Kosovo is still in a period of transition, moving from a region ridden with conflict to a stable and prosperous democracy. This is a fact that you cannot escape in Pristina. Unfinished buildings can be seen on most streets and some old soviet structures still show the scars of war. Electricity and water supplies are not always reliable. The main roads have a lot of potholes. Many smaller roads are dusty tracks of gravel. There are more UN vehicles here than there are red buses in London. Posters advertising a protest against the Serbian elections (in which Kosovan Serbs will be able to vote despite Kosovo’s declaration of independence) have been stuck up all over the centre of town. Concrete road-blocks are a common sight in the city centre, even if their covering of graffiti betrays their age. People in military uniforms come and go regularly. Near the UNMIK headquarters uniformed men carrying side-arms drink coffee alongside the kind glamorous and enviably relaxed women you might associate with Milan or Paris.

Pristina is very different from the rest of Kosovo. It is an economically dynamic and busy city with strong cosmopolitan elements, but you can still feel it is a troubled place. Not only is there the persistent threat of the old conflict returning to the surface, but the dependence on the international community for what seems like a significant part of its economy could prove to be a problem, especially as the security forces and diplomats begin to scale down their operations. UNMIK, and the wages it pays, will not be here for ever.

No comments: