If you asked a Kosovar what they think about the United States, you will hear them profess great love and admiration, guaranteed. Much of this admiration is directed towards former President Bill Clinton – who has a statue in the capital of Pristina – former senator Bob Dole, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, whom they view as playing a crucial role in their 1999 liberation.
On the other hand, if you asked most Americans what they think about Kosovo, they would stare back at you in confusion, unaware of the little country’s existence in Eastern Europe. But most Americans know the famous Kosovar-Albanian Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, more commonly referred to as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The Republic of Kosovo is one of the newest states in the world, and as a state recognized by 53% of the United Nations (102 of 193 members), 86% of NATO (25 of 29 members), and 60% of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (34 of 57 members) it has for the most part in its ten-year independence remained relatively unheard of. Yet, the little country is playing a big role in its home region of Eastern Europe and has been making major moves since the turn of the century. As with anything it is better to be knowledgeable than ignorant, so let’s take a look inside this tiny, beautiful nation of Kosovo.
Kosovo (spelled “Kosova” in Albanian) is located in the center of the Balkans in Eastern Europe. Kosovo is the second-youngest country in the world, declaring independence from Serbia in the north on February 17, 2008. It is smaller than the U.S. state of Connecticut by 1,331 miles². It is landlocked, bordered by Serbia in the north and east, Macedonia to the southeast, Albania to the southwest, and Montenegro to the west. Kosovo will celebrate its 11th birthday later this month, but humans have inhabited the land for thousands of years.
The area that is now part of Kosovo has been conquered and controlled by various states, kingdoms, and empires throughout history: from the Roman Empire, to the Ottoman Empire, the Axis Powers in the 1930s and 1940s, and Yugoslavia until its collapse in 1990s. Having been occupied by multiple nations and cultures had many negative consequences in the short-term, such as ethnic oppression (which would become a continuous problem in the region) and forced religious conversion, which ended up being beneficial long-term.
Today, Kosovo has a population just under 2 million people, but almost no one outside of politicians and other government officials refer to themselves as Kosovars, instead identifying by their ethnicity. 93% of Kosovo citizens identify as Albanian or Kosovar-Albanian, 1.5% as Serbian, and 5.5% as various others such as Bosnian, Turkish, or Romani. Additionally, around 95% of people identify as Muslim either being Sunni or Bektashi. On paper, the number of Christians seems very small, 2.2% identifying as Catholic and 1.5% as Orthodox, but it is common to see many churches and cathedrals in any given city.
As previously stated, Kosovo stands apart in the Balkan region and from other European nations as a whole for its great tolerance toward religion. This is impressive as Kosovo has historically been the site of religious wars and religious oppression. For just one example, a few years ago the Mother Teresa Cathedral in Pristina was in desperate need of repairs, and Christian leaders in the capital were struggling to come up with funds. One day they learned a Kosovar-Muslim had donated €5,000 ($5,728.75) to help rebuild the cathedral, later stating, “We Kosovars are all brothers and sisters.”
The population of nearly 2 million people is very young, with the median age being about 29 years old, and the average life expectancy being 70 years old. Most people, especially younger citizens, speak fluent to moderate English, starting to learn it from a very young age, around the same time they are learning Albanian, which is one of the official languages in Kosovo.
Kosovar youths spend their free time like most other kids around the world, playing sports, with football (soccer) and volleyball (sometimes referred to as netball) the two most popular sports in the country. They enjoy listening to music such as EDM and hip-hop, the latter increasing in popularity within the past five years. However, going to see a movie in the theater is difficult, as there are only a few small theaters scattered throughout the country.
During a roundtable conversation with high school students, they explained there was not much to do outside of school besides hanging out with friends, getting coffee, or for Kosovars over 18, going to bars at night. Talking with more high school and university students, it appeared interest in the creative arts like writing or drawing was minimal. As a student from the University of Gjakova put it:
“We have not seen enough of the world to write or draw about it.”
For many young Kosovars, their main priorities are to get a job, get married, and have children. One student I spoke with was 33 and married with two children who were seven and eight years old.
Discussing the issues and challenges they were most concerned about the most, it seemed for young Kosovars it came down to two specific issues. First was the visa restrictions currently placed on Kosovo. Kosovars are not allowed to freely travel outside the country and are more or less confined within the borders of Kosovo. A male university student in Gjakova was able to study for three months in Massachusetts and New York, but had to spend an almost longer amount of time getting the proper documents to do so.
Secondly was a part of the economic crisis facing the country; specifically, the extremely high unemployment rate of 73% for Kosovars under 24. It is nearly impossible for young people to find work or have a steady income, or any sort of income at all. It had taken a group of high school students nearly three months selling old clothes to raise €150 ($171.86) for their project to repaint elderly homes in Pristina; however, they eventually were successful in raising enough money and had completed their repainting project by the end of 2018. In addition, the high unemployment rate has affected enrollment at universities, as young adults would rather hurry to find work than spend extra money getting a degree and not working.
I intentionally described the young people of Kosovo before looking at the economy for this reason. Every country’s survival, success, and future is in the hands of the next generation, but in many cases the older generation leaves a chaotic mess for the younger one to try and fix. It is important to understand who the next leaders and policymakers of Kosovo are now before explaining the difficult situation facing them.
To put it briefly: Kosovo, economically, is in a lot of trouble. There are many reasons for this, from being a new country in an unstable region to not being formally recognized by the United Nations or the European Union, just to name a few. In a meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, he stated:
“Getting the economy in better shape is the main priority of my administration. We cannot be taken seriously by the international community if domestically we are in disarray.”
To oversimplify, Kosovo’s economic problems have two main problems. The first is the difficulty of getting foreign companies to invest in the country. The only major foreign investment is a billion-dollar power plant currently in development. The other problem is the economic advisors in the government are finding the transition from a communist state to a democratic, capitalist state difficult.
The majority of Kosovars, primarily older citizens who spent most of their lives in communist Yugoslavia, believe the government or “public sector” should run or have a significant hand in Kosovo economic and business activities. However, Kosovo sits on top 1/3 of Europe’s coal reserves, which would be an excellent source of short-term income as well as job creation, but they are unable to mine any coal due to certain environmental regulations.
The staggering high unemployment rate among young people does not get better looking at the country as a whole. Kosovo’s unemployment rate is 54%, and 42% of are not economically active. Kosovars are able to live without having to work due to remittances, or family members living abroad sending money back home. In fact, 16% of Kosovo’s GDP comes from remittances alone. Moreover, Kosovo has been importing more goods than it exports, and they are heavily restricted from trading with EU nations being a non-EU country.
Kosovo is a naturally beautiful country and has historically been an area tourists throughout Europe visit, and the current federal and city administrations seems to be putting a good amount of energy into improving their tourism sector. Tourism is already the main industry in the western city of Peja and hosts more tourists than anywhere else in Kosovo. In a meeting with Peja’s mayor Gazmend Muhaxheri, he explained they are currently working on redeveloping the city center as well as an ongoing project to clean up the river that runs through the city.
In the southern city of Prizren, their city government is working on four projects: increasing tourism and tourist attractions, increase manufacturing, restoring culturally significant buildings and other historic sites, and to create more job opportunities for the citizens living in and around the city.
However, the southwest city of Gjakova aims to get more tourists than Peja and Prizren combined, as they are building, maintaining, and expanding numerous tourist attractions. They are adding a zip line to their ski resort to be open for tourists this summer. The local government also has multiple ongoing projects to clean up the city and river, currently in the planning stages of building a riverwalk similar to the one in Prizren.
During World War II, Kosovo was occupied by fascist Italy, and soon after a significant number of Albanian language schools were opened. Previously, most of these schools had been shutdown or outlawed, even though Albanians primarily inhabited the area. When fascist Italy was defeated, Kosovo was occupied by Nazi Germany, which supported Albanian language schools and oversaw the opening of more until the Allies defeated them in 1945.
Following the end of World War II, Kosovo became part of Yugoslavia, and Albanians were officially recognized as a national minority, meaning the Albanian language had been officially recognized in the new communist country. However, Albanian language schools were only provided in primary schools. Even in such a limited scope, Albanian language education was difficult to maintain due to a lack of qualified Albanian teachers.
Education in Kosovo entered a liberalism period in 1968, during which time the University of Pristina was opened, changing everything, and the Albanian language and culture began gaining increased credibility in Yugoslavia. An agreement between universities in Pristina and the city of Tirana resulted in large imports of Albanian texts and better teaching materials. By 1973, around 70% of all teachers in Kosovo were Albanian. The beginning of the 1980s would see this Albanian culture and educational progress come to a sudden halt, and quickly, former restrictions would be implemented.
In 1981, riots erupted at the University of Pristina, and it became labeled as a “hotbed of Albanian nationalism and irredentism” by the state-run media. The riots resulted in the cultural exchanges between Pristina and Tirana and other Kosovo-Albanian cultural exchange agreements being curtailed. Albanian textbooks and teaching materials were replaced with ones in the Serb-Croat language, which became compulsory to study in high school.
In 1989 a new curriculum was implemented, focusing on Serbian culture and history while greatly reducing elements reflecting Albanian culture. The Yugoslavian government also required teachers to sign a loyalty pledge to follow the new curriculum, but 6,000 Albanian teachers and professors refused and were fired; furthermore, over 450,000 students boycotted the new Serbian-focused curriculum.
After the end of the Kosovo War (part of the Yugoslavian Wars), part of the United Nation’s mission was to reform the educational system in Kosovo on all levels. Six more public universities were opened as well as two other specialty schools; additionally, 21 private universities were opened. Today, Kosovo has over 120,000 students, which translates to 7,000 students for every 100,000 inhabitants, while most other European countries have 3,000 students for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Still, Kosovo faces a few education challenges. Meeting with the student parliament at Gjakova University, they explained students who receive degrees cannot find suitable work in Kosovo. According to the student parliament, the faculty do not prepare them well for the poor labor market. The curriculums do not have a wide variety of courses or majors, and what they do offer isn’t very useful. Courses such as Albanian literature or Albanian language have limited career options. The faculty are unable to connect students with employers who are hiring, so they move abroad to find better work opportunities and never return, directly contributing to the current economic problems facing the country. The federal government recently has been offering scholarships to remain and work in the country, but it has not been effective.
The faculty is not entirely to blame, as the visa restrictions mean educators can only work with methods they’ve read and cannot travel abroad to see these methods in practice. The travel restrictions also prevent the universities and schools from getting better teaching materials and textbooks, which all together create a poor curriculum for the majority of schools. Protests have become more and more common among university students, but so far, nothing has come out of these protests beyond raising awareness in an effort to make the federal government and other European nations take the issue more seriously.
Kosovo, like the rest of the Balkans, has been torn apart by war and genocide. Immediately following the end of the Yugoslavian Wars, the Balkans area was highly unstable and ripe for lawlessness. The entire region became a major traffic route between the Middle East and the West for terrorism havens, narcotics smuggling, and human trafficking. In response to crime seemingly coming and going as it pleased, Kosovo created the Kosovo Security Force, or KSF: a non-military, multi-ethnic, lightly-armed security force, with 10% being made up of minorities. The KSF is similar to the United States National Guard and currently has 8,200 soldiers; 5,000 who are active, 3,000 in the reserves, and 200 are considered to be in civilian status.
The Iowa National Guard has been deployed to Kosovo as part of the NATO mission there. Kosovo was initially not allowed to have any kind of military beyond de-mining and firefighting divisions, which to this day has been the majority of the KSF’s work. The Iowa National Guard and NATO are there to help protect against domestic and foreign threats, as well as assist in natural disaster situations; however, NATO is mostly there to advise and train KSF soldiers and leaders. In a few recent KSF operations, the cyber-protection training proved useful to the mission’s success.
As of 2019 the KSF has reached full NATO capabilities, meaning they have met all the objectives NATO set forth for them. They are now focused on maintaining and advancing these capabilities or objectives. On January 21, 2019, the KSF started the transitioning phase and is operating under direction of the Ministry of Defense. The entire transition to a full military force will take about 10 years, set to be completed by late 2027 or early 2028. The second phase of the transition will start in late 2019 and last until early 2021; during that time period, the KSF will start developing new missions, creating new objectives, and improving their overall capabilities. They are also looking to increase the size of their military in order to have the numbers to join NATO, which they are interested in doing.
The transition has provoked a harsh responses from Serbia. Specifically, they are concerned about the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo whom they feel it is their duty to protect. Kosovo responded to Serbia’s concerns stating an army of 8,200 is no threat to 40,000 strong Serbian army. NATO has not responded directly to Serbia’s concerns; their only response to the KSF transition is that it is “ill-timed.” On the other hand, most Balkan nations besides Serbia have supported the KSF transition. But the KSF are not the only security forces in Kosovo.
The Kosovo Police, or KP, works throughout the country and is primarily responsible for border security. The KP currently have a staff size of 8,720 with 7,657 of those being uniformed officers. 86% of the KP are male and 84% are Albanian, but the chief of police has stated it has not been a problem though they would like to even out these numbers over the next five to ten years. He was also asked what he saw as the main threats to Kosovo currently, which he said were narcotic smuggling, extremism, and money laundering.
Looking into the future, potential projects include getting membership in international organizations such as INTERPOL and EUROPOL, various police reforms, and combating organized crime. Current KP projects include terrorism, cyber-security (the first country to ever implement a strategy in this area), and cyber-crime, primarily among children.
The New Kid on the Block
The young Republic of Kosovo was born out from the ashes of the worst European genocide and war since World War II. A hard road ahead is inevitable, and most issues are as clear as day to the average Kosovar. Some issues seem hidden or ignored, such as the relentless nationalistic attitudes that contradict assertions of having learned from the horrific wars that left over 130,000 people dead and over 4 million displaced. However, the KSF, KP, and many young Kosovars seemed less concerned with ethnic superiority and more concerned with finding work.
With so many problems in the tiny, new nation, many wonder why Kosovo hasn’t become part of Albania, since most Kosovars are ethnically Albanians and refer to themselves as such. It seems many Kosovars are determined to make a name on their own and it is not hard to see the eagerness and motivation in the faces of so many people. These people are ready to move Kosovo forward and build a country that will make their children proud, to bring peace and prosperity to a nation worn down by a history of violence, and to bring back levels of international cooperation they have not seen in decades.