“Should I stay or should I go now?”

(Looking beyond Kosovo’s birthday celebration and fireworks)

On February 17, Europe’s youngest state celebrated its 6th birthday. It’s been a celebration with mixed feelings. “Back then it was very emotional, there was euphoria in the air. We celebrated in the streets, now it’s mostly frustration you feel”, explains Lendita Abdiu, an architect educated in Sweden and now working at the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning in Pristina.

2.000 kilometers to the North, in the heartland of Sweden, Zeqavete Xheladini, one of thousands of well educated Kosovars working abroad, reminisces the day and the moment, when prime minister Hashim Thaci proclaimed that Kosovo will never be ruled by Serbia again, and from now on Kosovo is a proud, sovereign and free country. The parliament in Pristina had just voted for independence and signed the declaration. “When I remember that moment of total relief and happiness I still get shivers all over. It was the first time I saw the new flag on TV. It felt good and right, like seeing a newborn baby. It is a modern flag, without nationalist symbols. It has Europe’s color and symbols”, describes Zeqavete.

Since the ousting of Serb aggression by NATO in 1999, international donor agencies have strongly supported Kosovo’s post-conflict reconstruction and development. Today, Kosovo is the largest per capita recipient of EU financial support in the world. While the donor agencies and Kosovo institutions have shown themselves capable of holding the peace, much like in Bosnia, they have been less successful in building a viable vision for Kosovo’s future. The economy is in dire straits, corruption is rampant, energy and water supplies are insufficient, air pollution is evident around the capital Pristina and Kosovo’s young population (65% is under 30 years old) is growing increasingly restless.

In early February, student demonstrations at Pristina University turned violent. University professors stood accused of falsifying their credentials. In response to the student uproar against fraud rector Mr Ibrahim Gashi resign. In another corruption related scandal, EULEX (EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo) and local police arrested, among others, the son of Kosovo’s late President, Ibrahim Rugova, for allegedly organizing the sale of Schengen visas.

Kosovo is the only country in Western Balkans that does not enjoy a visa free travel agreement with the EU. 36.000 newly graduated, young Kosovars start looking for a job every year. With an inadequate number of jobs available domestically, the desire to leave Kosovo grow stronger. A constant ‘brain-drain’ of young talent constraints Kosovo’s capacity to develop a sustainable economy, society and state. “I often wonder if I made the right choice to return to Kosovo”, reflects Lendita, “or I would have been better off staying in Sweden, as some of my international student friends did. They found good jobs in Sweden and Norway”.

The social rift between the have and have not’s in Kosovo society is starting to show. Unemployment is 35% on average, but over 55% among the youth. 37% of the population lives in poverty (below €1.42/day). The situation among disadvantaged groups is even worse, with 17% of the population living in extreme poverty (below €0.93/day). At the same time, a political-business elite has emerged whose wealth accumulation is mainly linked to government spending, construction and trade.

On the international arena, Kosovo has been successful in normalizing its bilateral relationship with Serbia. An historical EU brokered agreement was signed in April 2013. This agreement paves the way for closer EU integration for both countries. Obtaining recognition from other states and international organisations is a top priority of the Kosovo government. In 2009, Kosovo became a member of the World Bank Group and in 2012 it achieved full membership of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), opening up for new funding opportunities for the economic development of Kosovo.

On the political front, more than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but full membership the United Nations and even FIFA is being blocked by Serbia and its supporters, mainly Russia. The EU, although the largest financial supporter of Kosovo, remain internally divided.  Five Member States, including Spain, have not recognized Europe’s newest state, mainly due to their own minority issues.

Beside traditional forms of diplomacy, Kosovo has turned to ‘digital diplomacy’ in its pursuit of international legitimacy, and in December 2013 it reaped its most significant success so far when Facebook allowed users to register themselves as Kosovo citizens (rather than as citizens of Serbia or Albania). Yet, it is perhaps the pre-occupation with achieving external recognition that has limited Kosovo’s success in improving people’s lives at home.

To stop the ‘brain-drain’, and even attract the large number of talented Kosovars living and working abroad to return to Kosovo, like Lendita, government and society need to refocus on improving the health of the Kosovo economy, society and its people. However, a return to Kosovo is more than an emotional decision. For a large number of Kosovo Diaspora the day-to-day financial and practical realities of life, working and bringing up a family in their new home countries is making a permanent return to Kosovo an increasingly unlikely step.

The Diaspora is caught in a Catch-22 situation. In order to return, the Diaspora first wants the situation in Kosovo to normalize, but to normalize the situation the skills, expertise and entrepreneurial drive of the Diaspora is desperately needed – in Kosovo! It’s the young, well-educated and professionally experienced Kosovars living abroad who represent Kosovo’s best bet in building a viable middle-class. Kosovo, like many other transitional countries, need a strong and vibrant middle-class to uphold and defend the beliefs and values of democracy, such as liberty, transparency, equality, responsibility, common good and justice.

“More students from Kosovo should have the opportunity to work abroad as seasonal employees,” says Lendita, “they would then better understand how things work in more developed societies, and why. With that new experience and knowledge, they can then help  build a better Kosovo.”

While there is an obvious, strong, emotional tie to Kosovo and its culture, traditions, food and habits among the Diaspora, it is not enough for most of them to return to Kosovo. Not yet. “I am looking long-term, at the job security and free higher education that Sweden offers my child”, explains Zeqavete, “but at the same time, I miss Kosovo, my family and friends. Our plan is to work hard here, save and go back to Kosovo as soon as possible. But I cannot guarantee that my son will feel the same, as he is born here in Sweden.”

For Kosovo, and its young institutions and society, foreign aid and the Diaspora remain two sources of financial, human, technical and social capital that can contribute, if utilized effectively and responsibly, to long-term, positive solutions and improvements in the well-being of all citizens in Kosovo, and to create real ‘hope for the future’ among Kosovo’s largest asset – its youth! If we cannot deliver ‘hope’, then the young Kosovars will simply vote with their feet!

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About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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