Monday, June 09, 2008

Last blog of Kosovo

Throughout our or five weeks in Kosovo a lot of people here have asked us what we think of the place. It is a question I still don’t know how to respond to. On one level Kosovo seems like a place which offers a very pleasant life. On the surface the atmosphere is very relaxed. As a British citizen many of the people you meet are very friendly, wanting to talk to you about Premiership football, your favourite music or David Miliband. Its capital, Pristina is developing into fully-fledged European city. In Mitrovica there is a feeling of community that towns of similar size in Britain do not have. Kids play football and basketball on the main streets without the police or angry owners of the coffee bars chasing them away if the ball flies out of control. You can get a good pizza for under £4. A beer costs you less than £1, a decent coffee less than 50p. For a member of the international community, with a wage far higher than the vast majority of local people, there is a nice life to be had in Kosovo.

However, if you say that you like Kosovo, or that life here seems good, to a Kosovan they are likely to look at you as though you are either lying or a little strange in the head. It’s then that you remember the long list of problems the region has.

Most of Kosovo has daily power-cuts. In Mitrovica the water is turned off for 12 hours ever other day to avoid shortages. Generally the roads are in a poor condition. 40% of the population is unemployed. Some estimates are even higher. Social aid is between €30 and €50 a month per person. There is a large underground economy but it does not disguise the fact that money is tight for the vast majority of the population. This is exacerbated by the fact that the banking system is not trusted. Many families get money from relatives who live and work in Europe or the US but, instead of being have a reliable savings account to keep larger sums of money in, it is often spent on building a house, garage, car wash or restaurant in the middle of nowhere and with little identifiable purpose.

The education system is so over-crowded that children have to go to school in shifts. 50% of the population is under 25, 26% is under 18. Teachers get a monthly wage of around €150 a month, earnings which do not represent the amount of work required of them. There is one public university and a number of private ones which offer a variable quality of education. Most degrees obtained are of little worth outside Kosovo. The health service is hugely underfunded. The Ministry of Health has only €56 million to spend on 2 million people. Neighbouring Macedonia has €500 million for a population of a similar size. There is virtually no health insurance. The lack of official employment means there is little money from taxes. Wages for lower-income staff in the health service are low and the government has only €250,000 to spend on continuing the education of Kosovo’s doctors – a sum which the Minister of Health described to me as ‘no more than symbolic’. The result is that the health service remains hugely dependant on foreign donors and will be for some time to come.

This dependence on the international community can be seen at almost every level of the day to day running of Kosovo. Ultimately its government’s authority is still subordinate to UNMIK. Kosovo’s deceleration of independence was based on the condition that it undergoes a period of ‘international supervision’, meaning that the international community still has a lot of influence over the Kosovan government. In June EULEX, a mission of 1800 European diplomats and legal professionals, will descend on Kosovo’s legal system in an attempt to make it stronger and fairer. Even the coffee shops and continental dining largely depend on the disposable incomes of the international community who work here. The Kosovan Police Service is still supplemented by law enforcement from all over the world and essentially relies on the military might of KFOR. The violence in north Mitrovica during March this year, in which KFOR had to take over from the KPS, proves how vital KFOR is to the region’s stability. There are few Kosovans who think that a quick withdrawal of international forces is a good idea.
However, even with strong international support, the government was unable to do anything to stop the Serbian local elections on May 11th proving that even UNMIK and KFOR can still be subject to the region’s volatile politics. Choosing not to exacerbate the already tense post-independence atmosphere between Serbs and Albanians, UNMIK decided to denounce the elections but do nothing to stop them taking place. The Kosovan government, unable to do much else, followed suit, prompting a large protest in Pristina by those Kosovan Albanians who want a government free of what they see as foreign interference. Election day passed by peacefully enough. However, not only did it re-iterate the influence Serbian politics has in Kosovo, it strengthened the structures of a Serbian local government within Kosovo’s borders. It is too early to say exactly how this will progress but a likely outcome is that Serbs will further disassociate themselves with the Kosovan government, choosing instead to identity themselves with the parallel structures the local elections helped to consolidate.

This is in addition to the long standing tactics the Serbian government has used to undermine any kind of autonomous or independent governance in Kosovo. Even before World War I Serbia encouraged its citizens to move to Kosovo by offering them free land and tax exemption in order to strengthen its claim to annexing the region. A similar policy began after the war in 1999. Serbs living in Kosovo can claim up to €110 a month from the Serbian government to remain in Kosovo. Serbia also provides power to the Serb dominated north of Mitrovica, saving it from the regular power-cuts the south of the town suffers. Medical staff at the hospital in north Mitrovica are paid double what they would earn if they worked in Serbia. Many Serbs here say that Kosovo is their home and that is all the reason they need to stay. There is little reason to doubt them. However, the support provided by the Serbian government to Kosovan Serbs undermines the authority and challenges the competency of the new Kosovan government. It wouldn’t be cynical to suggest that the intended message from the Serbian government is that Kosovo cannot govern itself.

The declaration of independence remains controversial. So far only 42 countries have formally recognised it. Whether it is legal not it has served to knock Serbian-Albanian relations backwards. In Mitrovica many people have told us that before independence there was a relatively peaceful atmosphere in the town. Since the declaration all multi-ethnic programmes shut down. Photographers who had worked on both sides of the bridge stopped doing so. Although a recent volunteering programme saw some young people from the north and south get together the fact remains that the deceleration for independence has isolated the vast majority of Serbs and strengthened their affiliation with the Serbian nation.

Besides the mixture of euphoria and outrage the declaration has had few material implications for Kosovo. However, it does seem to have had a huge psychological boost to the Albanian population. Speaking with many people, especially young people, their sense of responsibility for their community and the success of their nation are very strong. Although some of the older people are looking to the government to strengthen the economy and generate more jobs, a lot of the younger people see it the success of Kosovo as an individual responsibility. Of course some of this may be put down to naivety, but it is inspiring none-the-less. The problem is that the pride and duty they feel towards their new nation is equal to the pride and identity young Serbian people feel towards Kosovo as part of Serbia. And memories of the war are still strong, something nationalist Serb politicians will continue to perpetuate and capitalise on in order to grab more votes.

The situation is far too complex to be able to decide whether the future for Kosovo is hopeful or dismal. The level of long term international support, which is likely to extend into the foreseeable future, has done a great deal for the region but it is not a sustainable solution. The vast majority of the people we spoke to, Serb, Albanian and Roma expressed a desire to leave the past behind and work towards a better future. They were all careful to make us understand that when they spoke of their hopes for the future they were hopes for everyone in Kosovo regardless of ethnicity. But the war and its fallout have left raw wounds which lie close to the surface of everyday life. A lot of Kosovan Albanians are big fans of James Blunt, not so much for his music, but because he was in one of the first regiments in the British Army to come to Kosovo in the war. For some of our students, who range from 15 to 19, the war is one of the first collection of memories they have beyond isolated images of walking to school and playing with their friends. Talking about the war still brought tears to one woman’s eyes.

The fact remains that Kosovo is still dominated by the tragic effects of a terrible ethnic conflict. Even nine years after the war many people have not returned to their homes because they would not feel safe there. The hope is that people from Kosovo and the international community are not willing to give up on the region. Serbs, Albanians and Roma feel that it is their home and they do not want to leave. As one of our students said about Mitrovica ‘I don’t have a life without it.’ The hope for the future is that this common desire to live a happy and successful life in Kosovo can result in uniting the people living here rather than continue to force them apart.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great summation Guy.