Life in Postwar Kosovo as the U.S.’s ‘Burek Republic’
PRISTINA, Kosovo (A.W.)—On March 19, a snowy day and a month after the Republic of Kosovo’s second anniversary of its independence from Serbia, I sat and talked in Kosovo’s capital with artist and local unemployed folk musician Atjem Gashi, 27, about the state of Kosovo’s youth unemployment problem, the legitimacy of Kosovo’s government through the eyes of Kosovar youth, and solutions to the new republic’s plights.
Gashi is not an average “man on the street,” but an educated, Albanian grassroots activist who previously worked for numerous IGOs and NGOs in Kosovo—including the UN, OSCE, EULEX, the U.S. military, and the Kosovo government—and the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, as a community organizer, translator, liaison, and driver.
Born and raised outside of Pristina in the mountain city of Gjakove, he used his contacts to obtain a short-term work visa for employment in the Netherlands, then returned to his native Kosovo, moved to the capital with his family to seek work, and began to voice his dissent against the country’s political status quo.
Asked how he viewed the current Kosovo government and whether it was legitimately elected by the people, Gashi responded, “Of course not. The governing leaders of Kosovo today were the military fighting the Serbs during the war. They didn’t come into power the right way, but they are the right people for Kosovo at the moment.”
“But in general, if you ask most Kosovars they will say this is the right way,” he added. “However, we’ve had three elections since the war, and each year the electorate has decreased. People are losing faith in the leaders.”
“The Kosovo government and the U.S. don’t want the people here to think for themselves. The U.S. has done great things for us, but if someone saves your life, do you then owe them your life?”
Gashi is well-versed in how the international community has responded to Kosovo’s reconstruction and infrastructure development since the conclusion of NATO’s military intervention and bombing campaign in 1999. “The U.S. does not know how to communicate with other cultures because they are a commercial society. They only know how to control money and economics—but control is not love.”
Asked about Kosovo’s biggest problems, Gashi said, “It’s the economy and the fundamental problem of poverty and unemployment. Seventy percent of Kosovo’s youth are unemployed. It’s the highest number in Europe, and it’s because it’s thought that Kosovo cannot provide security to international investors.”
The CIA World Factbook estimates Kosovo’s overall unemployment level, as of 2007, at 40 percent. The 70 percent youth unemployment statistic is widespread and often quoted on Kosovo’s state television and even on television commercials such as car and restaurant advertisements.
As to the day-to-day safety for its population and those international workers and contractors employed there, Gashi said, “It’s like in the U.S., as long as you don’t touch politics, personal safety is not a problem in Kosovo.”
“My personal view is Kosovo needs international support on a local level,” he said, “but not as the international community is doing now. Through education and through giving us alternatives to working for the mafia.”
Asked whether the international organizations positively produce change in the average Kosovars’ daily life, Gashi responded, “No, they are superficial. You can ask most people in these international organizations and get a sense that they do their work to feel good about themselves, but they don’t care about Kosovo’s culture or want to live here because they only care about keeping their jobs. These are ‘the politics of self.’”
“The U.S. is an invader, but a kind invader,” he said. “But why don’t we have an alternative to being under an invader? My life is not given to me by the U.S., it is given to me by God. But if I and say 20 other people tried to start a new political movement, the Kosovo Secret Police would kill us, and they are trained by the U.S. So what can we do?”
The city of Mitrovica, in the mountainous north of Kosovo, is known as the “Divided City.” As the last redoubt of Serbian nationalist control, it is the only remaining area in the Republic of Kosovo deemed a “war zone” by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Kosovo Force (KFOR), those NATO-led soldiers and military police.
Mitrovica is divided in two by a bridge that separates the Serb-dominated north side of the city and the Albanian south side. It was once the seat of the Trepca Mines during the Soviet era.
Scaled back to a level of obscurity from its former Cold War glory with the closure of the Trepca complex, the influx of refugees and IDPs, and a general lack of investment, unemployment (estimated at approximately 77 percent) is now prevalent among all communities in the Kosovska Mitrovica municipality.
Under official protection mandate by the French garrison of UNMIK (though when I was present, protection duties had shifted in offcial rotation to the Spanish UN peacekeepers), the north side of Mitrovica is often patrolled by Serbian nationalist gangs clad in black leather jackets that seek to protect what they deem to be Serbian values and to keep all Albanians out of the Serbian quarter by force and violence.
On March 17, 2004, the drowning of an Albanian child coming home from school (chased into the Ibar River by nationalist Serb gangs) prompted major ethnic violence in the town, and the murder of a Serbian teenager. In Pristina, the incident sparked violence and riots that ended in the burning of the major Serbian church near the University of Pristina campus—an artificial landmark in the minds of most Kosovar Albanians that was built by Milosevic to create the illusion of a greater Serbian population in a city of majority Muslim Albanians.
In Mitrovica, demonstrations degenerated into rioting and gunfire, leaving 8 Albanians dead and at least 300 injured. The bloodshed sparked off the worst unrest in Kosovo seen since the end of the war.
Today, many residents of Mitrovica have become expert chameleons in removing their car’s license plates, which signal their identity—Pristina Albanian or Mitrovica Serbian—to nationalist vandals. Most in Kosovo are employed in the republic’s capital of Pristina; many Serbs wishing to avoid emigration to Serbia’s capital Belgrade or as far as Moscow will risk social stigma (by their fellow Serbs) by traveling back and forth to Pristina, removing and replacing their Serbian license plates appropriately.
Similarly, Albanian and Serbian youth caught on the wrong side of the bridge in casual social relations with classmates of the opposing identity routinely risk violent reprisals from Mitrovica’s Serbian-dominated gangs.
Traveling by night with my Albanian friend and guide Behar, I spoke on the northern side of the bridge with Tanja Petrovic-Leposavic, 23, a Serbian student who recently returned to her home outside Mitrovica after graduating from Kent State University in the U.S. in 2008 with a BA in international relations and psychology.
Even such a casual interview was not without risk and precaution. To risk being seen as a Serbian woman associating with an American journalist and a young Albanian male in the Serb quarter by Serbian nationalists carries its own gambit of possible pariah hood and retaliation.
In this way, Petrovic-Leposavic, who recently returned from working short-term in Moscow, represents the next generation of Serb and Albanian Kosovar youth—educated in the West and seeking greater social cohesion between the two identities the same way they experienced it on their university campuses outside Kosovo.
As a Serbian woman living in Mitrovica, Petrovic-Leposavic said of her enclave’s Serbian perspective in everyday life: “We look to both governments [Kosovo and Serbia] because technically I don’t live under the Kosovo government. I am a Serbian living in Kosovo. Kosovo’s government has nothing to do with me. I’m more affected even by Putin’s government in Russia.”
(Although Russia’s government is officially run by President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, most Serbs, like many Russians, know that former Russian President Vladimir Putin still controls of much of Russia’s political power and hence still refer to the country as “Putin’s government.”)
Of the predicament of Kosovo’s Serbs, Petrovic-Leposavic said, “Kosovo’s government is very progressive, but Serbs in Kosovo are often more influenced by the Serbian government. I can tell you that the Kosovo government is going in a great direction despite the corruption levels, but the new generation of Kosovars educated outside Kosovo need to come back because those today in the Kosovo government are still influenced by memories of the Milosevic government.”
I asked what she deemed to be Kosovo’s major problems and her opinion of any solutions to those problems. “The economy and the public sector is of course the major issue. We need sustainable development for the whole of Kosovo. Kosovo is currently exporting nothing except human trafficking. Nobody invests in the country, so what do we have to live off?”
Petrovic-Leposavic ended saying, “You must unite people and give them jobs. I don’t mean office jobs that don’t exist. Give them machine jobs like they had. But in Mitrovica, this bridge separates us. We don’t live under the Kosovo government, we live under the Serbian government.”