Kosovo's Growing Pains

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The 'Newborn' sculpture in downtown Pristina was unveiled in February 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence and became the world's newest country

Like most Albanians who grew up in Kosovo in the early 1990s, Gezim Gjikolli stopped going to public school when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic shut down the Albanian education system and fired most of its teachers. Instead, he and the other children in his hometown of Peje were educated in private homes, moving every day to avoid the detection of police until 1998, when war broke out between Kosovar rebels and Serb forces, bringing their schooling to a standstill. Desperate for a better life, Gjikolli taught himself English by listening to Mariah Carey songs, and eventually won a scholarship to study economics at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Gjikolli is now a success story. At 29, he runs a company constructing a $100 million, 20-story office tower and entertainment complex in the Kosovo capital, Pristina. "Now that we have freedom, we can't imagine going back to the way things were before," he says, sitting in his office across from the construction site. But he often finds life in isolated and impoverished Kosovo frustrating, and believes the world has forgotten his country. "After a while, people will become numb if things don't develop faster," he says. "It discourages you."

The world's newest nation may have its own flag, national anthem and passports, but optimism is fading two years after Kosovo declared independence from its former Serbian masters. The country has been recognized by only one-third of U.N. member states — five European Union members are among the holdouts — because of concerns about the legality of its split from Serbia as U.N.-backed negotiations on its final status were still taking place. Kosovars need visas to travel to every country of the world but four; even Afghans and Somalis have greater freedom of movement. And despite the country's love affair with the West — Pristina erected a statue of Bill Clinton (on Bill Clinton Boulevard, no less) last November — investment from the U.S. and the E.U. has been less than robust. The official ¬unemployment rate is over 40%.

And more trouble is ahead. In the coming months, the tiny nation could become a big test for the E.U. as the International Court of Justice rules on the legality of its independence declaration. Kosovo's status is unlikely to change no matter how the verdict goes — the court's opinion is not legally binding and will not require states that have recognized the country to reverse their decisions.

But a ruling against Kosovo could help Serbia in its bid to reassert control over the breakaway state. Although Serbia told the U.N. Security Council on May 17 it is committed to peacefully settling the dispute, it also said it would never accept an independent Kosovo. And a group of Western countries that negotiated an end to the war — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the U.S. — fears a return of instability in the Balkans, recently warning Serbia in a communiqué to abstain from taking any "adventurous actions."

For Kosovo to prove to the rest of Europe that it deserves its continued political support, it will have to get serious about tackling its litany of problems: endemic corruption, weak rule of law, organized crime, drug- and fuel-smuggling, unemployment. The list goes on. "[Kosovo] can go both ways," says Engjellushe Morina, director of the Kosovo Stability Initiative, a Pristina-based security think tank. "It can totally ruin itself and end up being an isolated hole in the western Balkans while all the other countries are moving ahead ... Someone has to put their foot down, someone at the leadership level, and decide to improve the way we've been doing things."

There are hints of change. Take the corruption fight. Few deny this is one of the main problems impeding foreign investment. But coming to grips with the issue has been difficult because of a lack of reliable data. Anticorruption watchdog Transparency International reported in 2007 that 67% of Kosovars said they had paid a bribe to obtain public services — placing the country above only Albania, Cambodia and Cameroon. Two years later, Kosovo showed a remarkable — and inexplicable — improvement. Just 13% of respondents said they had paid a bribe — a lower percentage than the results in Greece and Hungary. Ask average Kosovars if things have improved that much and they'll laugh.

Dennis Purdin, head of Kosovo operations for U.S.-based construction company Atlas Electric, says his firm has been frequently underbid by local companies since it set up operations last July because there's no oversight ensuring that building proposals meet quality and safety standards. "There are some very good laws, but nobody is enforcing them," says his Albanian partner, Perparim Avdullahu. "So whoever can work well behind the curtains, he will be successful."

After Kosovo's declaration of independence, the U.N. peacekeeping force in charge of security was replaced by a 3,200-strong E.U.-led mission dedicated to setting up a police and judicial system and targeting corruption. But Morina says that at first little was accomplished. "Everyone talks about corruption and organized crime, but we haven't seen a single arrest for the past 10 years. Not one government official being brought to court for mismanagement of public funds," she says. Hasan Preteni, the director of Kosovo's Anticorruption Agency, says his office has sent 168 cases to prosecutors in the past three years, but only a handful have resulted in indictments.

Now, however, the international mission appears to be cracking down. On April 28, E.U. police raided the home and offices of Transport Minister Fatmir Limaj as part of an investigation into alleged fraudulent road tenders. Limaj has denied any wrongdoing and refused to step down. Memli Krasniqi, an adviser to Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, argues that the country is making progress on corruption but that it will take time. "We are aware that our judicial system is not as strong as it needs to be ... but this is a process, an ongoing battle," Krasniqi says. "Kosovo is a new country that has struggled and faced challenges toward its state-building efforts, but in many ways Kosovo is quite a normal country."

There is certainly a sense of normality on the streets of Pristina these days. Young people socialize over coffee in the city's innumerable cafés, stroll the streets decked out in the latest Italian fashions and oversize sunglasses, and sing Albanian folk songs in smoky karaoke bars. And even though Kosovo doesn't have its own international calling code (it shares Monaco and Slovenia's) or its own Web domain (it's trying to secure .ks), Kosovars are addicted to their mobile phones and laptops. Besiana Musmurati, a 19-year-old student at the American University in Kosovo, says that when her father was her age he had limited opportunities to study and was later imprisoned for his political activism. "Now he has Facebook and e-mail," she says. "He never thought that being free would mean this much information."

To show this Kosovo off to the world, the government has hired advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi to create a new brand for the country. Based on the theme "The Young Europeans" — at just 25, Kosovo has the youngest average age of any country in Europe — the campaign's first TV spot features gorgeous college-aged Kosovars putting together a giant puzzle in the shape of their country, the idea being that the puzzle of Europe isn't complete without the final piece of Kosovo in the southeastern corner. Kosovars hope the rest of Europe starts getting the message.