20th May 2019


Kosovo: Living in a ghetto on the EU fringe

  • Pristina: Isolated? No problem, we will have visa-free travel next year. I mean the year after that. I mean … (Photo: cindy-dam)

When in 2008 Kosovo declared independence there were five words that every politician had to say.

“Integration into the European Union” was the refrain we heard almost every day from Kosovo’s leaders and from everyone else who visited Kosovo in the past eight years.

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EU integration was the answer to all of Kosovo’s problems and anxieties. Have no jobs? No problem, we will join EU and there will be plenty. Have no functioning economy? No problem, the EU market will fix it.

Isolated? No problem, we will have visa-free travel next year. I mean the year after that. I mean …

Corruption high? The EU will also fix this - they don’t let corrupt governments become EU members (do they? Bulgaria. Romania).

We’ve listened to stuff from our corrupt elites for too long. The EU panacea is wearing thin.

The false rhetoric was only meant to distract people while politicians built up their fortune. By misusing authority and power, they and their relatives won public tenders, opened businesses and became shareholders in different companies.

Their children became models and fashion designers, studied in expensive schools and travel the world flaunting their luxury lifestyles.

They also pretend to be role models for Kosovar society and have the nerve to talk about patriotism and morality.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kosovars have become poorer and poorer.

The old live their last days on pensions that insult their dignity and shame the conscience of right-thinking people.

The young become statistics in the 35 percent unemployment rate. They dream of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

But in the words of the hit pop song by Lords they “will never be royals, it doesn’t run in their blood, that kind of luxe just ain't for them.”

Last year, foreign investments were just €80 million. That’s a drop of 80 percent on the €400 million that we saw in 2008. Our GDP grew by 3 percent last year. The figure was 8 percent in 2008.

Hashim Thaci, the ex-prime minister, now president, and his clique in the PDK party, did the most to create this mess. But despite his shameful legacy and despite teargas and street protests he is now our head of state.

It’s an environment in which radical ideas thrive.

While all the economic indicators are falling, the far-left Vetëvendosje [Self-determination] party, or movement, is on the rise. It doesn’t recognise Kosovo’s flag or the idea of a multiethnic Kosovo.

For most Kosovar Albanians, these ideas belong to the past. They’ve learned the bloody cost of nationalism. But the current choice - between a corrupt and useless elite and a radical opposition - has no good option.

The EU and US are doing little to change the situation.

By supporting the old elite, they stymie reform.

By isolating 1.8 million Kosovars in the middle of Europe behind a visa wall they make their lives even more grim.

It’s true that many Kosovars today are poor and unemployed. But for us, the war ended in 1999, not 1945. We had limited opportunities for education. Our schools were closed and demolished.

It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself. The visa situation is humiliating and demoralising.

When the EU doesn’t deliver on key issues like this, then all its promises seem empty. For many Kosovars the EU doesn’t seem real because they have never had the chance to travel there.

It is a moving shadow they can never catch. The more they try, the further away it goes.

This closed-door approach has contributed to pushing many Kosovars to turn their eyes to the east and to believe that perhaps Istanbul, not Brussels, can do more to help.

To make things even worse, in 2014 the EU decided to rename DG [directorate-general] Enlargement to Neighbourhood Policy. The change of name meant also a change in the EU’s priorities.

If Balkan leaders start thinking the EU has an alternative agenda, reform will stop.

Enlargement is the EU’s most successful foreign policy instrument and to keep it working the prospect of membership should be open and real.

But it takes two to tango. So far, the Balkans have been following the EU’s lead and no economic crisis, no matter how big it is shouldn’t fade or diminish its leading role, because others, like Turkey and Russia, will fill the void.

Slowing the pace of integration is not the answer for the Balkans. Lifting visas will not magically solve all of Kosovo’s problems, but it will be a step in the right direction.

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


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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