Friday

22nd Feb 2019

Opinion

Kosovo: Despair on Thaci prompts EU exodus

  • Pristina: Poverty and corruption, or escape to the EU - stark choices for Kosovo's young people (Photo: Marco Fieber)

On 6 January in the New Year, Ali Fetahu, a 55-year old Kosovar man, was found dead from the cold in Hungary while trying to get to Germany.

He was one of thousands of people who are leaving Kosovo illegally after former PM Hashim Thaci’s PDK party agreed a coalition deal with the LDK in December.

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The new government means more of the same old problems: corruption, waste, and unemployment.

The exodus also brings back sad and not so distant memories of the 1990s, when almost one third of Kosovars fled the Milosevic regime.

Young people and unemployed parents are taking a gamble on human traffickers, risking everything to get “a chance in life” - a chance they don’t see in Kosovo.

Independence in 2008 brought hope.

Investments from the Kosovar diaspora started to pour in. The economy began growing by almost 10 percent a year. But it didn’t last. Partly, due to Europe’s subsequent economic crisis. But mainly due to high-level graft and lack of political vision.

Kosovo sold its crown jewels in disastrous, fast-track privatisations of top state companies.

The buyers - mostly unknown people with clandestine links to politicians - didn’t invest to increase production or jobs.

Under Thaci’s previous government, underground structures crippled the economy, with his cronies forging monopolies for their own firms, cheating the tax man, and frightening off decent investors by fostering a culture of bribery and lawlessnes.

It's a pyramid of corruption which will take a long time to dismantle.

Today, few would doubt the Thaci years are lost years.

His leadership has seen the economy stagnate. In 2013 growth fell to just 2.5 percent. Last year was no better.

He ruled, but he didn’t govern. He and his associates became richer and richer while ordinary people sank into poverty.

He lives a life of luxury, with a penchant for fancy clothes, each item of which he has embroidered with his monogram: HTH.

The fact he will stay at the centre of power, with the help of LDK leader Isa Mustafa, means nothing will change.

But at the same time, according to the World Bank, the number of people entering the labour force is growing. The result is 40 percent unemployment, rising to 55 percent for the 15-24s.

Kosovo’s interior ministry shows these same young people form the majority of those trying to escape.

Something simple

If the Kosovo elite is primarily to blame, the EU could still do something simple to help.

All western Balkan countries - except Kosovo - were in recent years granted EU visa-free travel.

The exception has made Kosovo one of the most isolated places in Europe.

The isolation is prompting people like Ali Fetahu to risk making a better life by any means.

It's also preventing Kosovar students, hundreds of whom are being educated in some of the EU’s best universities, from giving back to the EU economy.

When they come home, they're stuck. They can’t get a legitimate job in the EU without a visa, and they can’t get a visa without an employment contract.

With more than two-thirds of Kosovar Albanians already living outside Kosovo, most of them in EU countries, freedom of movement - the freedom to be with your loved ones - has the weight of a fundamental human right.

The EU and Kosovo began visa liberalisation talks in 2012.

It has already met the technical criteria set out in the EU roadmap. The one criterion it can't meet is lowering the number of asylum seekers.

But to lower that number, Kosovo’s economy has to get back to growth - it has to enter a post-HTH era.

There is no threat to the EU from lifting visas for the 1.8 million Kosovar citizens.

The longer the EU keeps Kosovo in isolation, the more money it puts in the pockets of human traffickers and the more misery it helps create.

Jeton Zulfaj is a graduate from Lund University in Sweden, with a masters in European Affairs

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