Europe's youngest state: no work, no way out, no country for young people


Unemployment in Kosovo is at 45 per cent overall, and its population is the youngest in Europe. With no chances to travel and few opportunities at home, what hope is there for the booming youth generation?

AT ALL HOURS of the day, Pristina’s artists, writers and dreamers gather in the snug confines of Dit e Nat, a book-filled cafe whose name means Day and Night in Albanian. Among them is Astrit Ismaili, a 20-year-old conceptual artist recently returned from a six-month residency in New York. “I was lucky. I got an award to go to the US,” he says. “Most people in Kosovo never get the chance to leave, because of the difficulties getting visas. It’s sad that the talent and ambitions of youth here are much bigger than our reality allows.”

Ismaili’s work explores themes of identity and sexuality through the prism of a society still coming to terms with the aftermath of the war that helped birth Kosovo as an independent state. It can be provocative – one project involved Ismaili posing almost nude against the Pristina skyline – and he knows he is pushing boundaries in what remains a largely conservative place. “If you don’t have the opportunity to experience things outside Kosovo, it can be suffocating here.”

Suffocating is also a word used by an unemployed graduate who gives his name as Dren. Nursing a macchiato at a crowded cafe with a view of the iconic bright-yellow Newborn monument – unveiled when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 – Dren gestures around him. “Pristina is full of cafes like this . . . packed with young people like me with nothing else to do but drink coffee all day,” he says bitterly. “We have no work, no prospects and no way out. This is no country for young people.”

Kosovo is, however, a country of young people. Its two million inhabitants make up the youngest population in Europe: every second person is under 25. More than half of the ministers in Kosovo’s government are under 40. The country’s president, a former police commander named Atifete Jahjaga, was just 36 when she was elected last year. And, as officials like to stress when discussing the challenges faced by Kosovo, the state, which celebrated its fourth birthday in February, is the second-youngest in the world after South Sudan.

“You cannot find a single case in history where, within three or four years of independence, the major issues of development in a country were addressed,” says Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Edita Tahiri. “I would say to our young people, give us time.”

But some charge that the government, which paid Saatchi Saatchi about €5 million to come up with a glossy international advertising campaign trumpeting Kosovo’s “Young Europeans”, is not taking the youth bulge seriously enough. Two years ago, the Kosovo Stability Initiative, a Pristina-based think tank, published, in partnership with Unicef, a report that estimated youth unemployment at 73 per cent.

“Unemployment in Kosovo is destroying young people,” one respondent, named Milot, told researchers; others talked of how nepotism and cronyism make life even more difficult for the young and jobless. The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better: it is predicted that about 200,000 will reach working age in the next five years.

“While many agree that the future of Kosovo lies in the hands of young people, Kosovo youth occupies very little place in the policies that determine its future,” the report said. “Education, youth empowerment and employment remain key challenges on Kosovo’s path towards European integration. Kosovo needs to invest more in its youth to be a competitive economy.”

One author of the report, Brikena Hoxha, says little has changed. “Youth is not a priority for the government. They tell us that they need to develop the economy first. They don’t see that the two should go hand in hand.”

Her colleague Vjosa Rogova-Damoni agrees. “Kosovo’s young people can be the driving force for our country. If the government ignores this, we could lose those who could help us develop,” she says. “Our research shows that young people don’t want to stay here because of the lack of opportunities. When you speak to them, many are increasingly apathetic, lacking in motivation and depressed. They see no future.”

Unemployment benefit is all but nonexistent in Kosovo. The only safety net is family. “What do young people do? They live with their parents and find a way to survive,” says Rogova-Damoni. Many seek escape in other ways: alcohol and drug use has increased, according to those who work with Kosovar youth.

Kosovo’s overall unemployment rate is about 45 per cent, the highest in the western Balkans. A report last year by the UN’s development programme noted that the fledgling state struggles with poor infrastructure and political and legal uncertainty – 104 of the UN’s 193 member states, including five in the EU, have yet to recognise Kosovo – which have resulted in limited foreign direct investment. The country is also hobbled by corruption: last week the head of the government’s taskforce for fighting graft was himself arrested on suspicion of bribery.

What remains is a moribund economy dependent on the service sector, international aid and remittances from the Kosovo diaspora, though this latter source of revenue has been affected by the global financial crisis.

Adding to the frustrations of youth is the fact that Kosovo is the last country in the Balkans whose citizens cannot travel freely to EU countries. Gripes about the exclusion of Kosovo from visa liberalisation is a common refrain among the disaffected. “We are geographically in Europe yet we are more isolated than people in Afghanistan,” says one.

“One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of movement, particularly for the young people. I consider our youth one of Kosovo’s biggest treasures. Visa liberalisation would enable them to be with their peers to exchange experience, ideas and vision,” says the country’s president, Atifete Jahjaga, in her offices in central Pristina. “The issue of unemployment and the clash between generations is not only a phenomenon in Kosovo, but the whole region.”

A REPORT BY THE Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development framed the youth issue in security terms. “Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to Kosovo is the lack of economic development combined with rapid population growth,” it read.

“Youth unemployment and economic hardship could threaten to destabilise Kosovo by forcing young people into criminality and the shadow economy or by creating social unrest. The state’s inability to provide for the basic needs of the population with regard to electricity, health, education and justice could trigger social upheaval.”

As Kreshnik Hoxha, a columnist in his early 20s, put it last year: “The truth is that Kosovo is signing its own death warrant by neglecting its youth.” One expatriate with years of experience working with international agencies in Kosovo draws parallels with the grievances that powered protests across the Middle East and north Africa last year: “A young population, high youth unemployment and increasing disenchantment with the status quo – the same ingredients are present here.”

Some attribute much of the rise of the youth-driven nationalist movement Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), from grassroots agitator to Kosovo’s third-largest parliamentary party, to its ability to channel mounting disaffection over the country’s isolation and stagnation.

Vetevendosje opposes all contact with Serbia, rails against what it perceives to be the paternalism of the international missions in Kosovo, including the EU operation known as Eulex, and presses for unification with neighbouring Albania.

Pristina’s streets are covered with its graffiti, including the withering “Eulexperiment” and “Jo Negociata – Vetevendosje!” (No Negotiations – Self-determination!). The latter has been daubed in huge lettering behind the landmark statue of Bill Clinton on the avenue that bears the former US president’s name, to mark his role in launching Nato’s bombing campaign to drive out Belgrade’s troops amid bloody ethnic fighting between Serbs and Albanians in 1999.

Vetevendosje’s leader Albin Kurti talks of a popular nonviolent uprising against what he sees as Kosovo’s corrupt political elite, and the movement’s street protests have led to clashes with police on several occasions.

Kosovo officials, some of whom describe Kurti and his movement as extremists, play down the possibility of more widespread unrest. “There is no risk of this whatsoever,” says President Jahjaga.

Shem Aliu, a 28-year-old civil-society activist who works with EU-funded projects related to economic development and reconciliation, argues that Kosovo has much to give.

“We want to join the EU, we want to be part of the Olympic Games, we want to be a member of the likes of Fifa . . . We want to show the world our brightest side: the talented youth,” he says. “As a country we have travelled a long way, although we are still far from where we want to be. But the isolation we are facing is making our aspirations stronger. We believe that better days are coming for us.”