In the 6 years since I was last in Pristina, Kosovo, everything has changed yet nothing has changed.
In 2003 it was a UN Protectorate, now it’s an ‘independent’ country. Then it was emerging from a post-conflict situation, now it’s generally stable. Before everything felt temporary, now the investments feel more deeply rooted, more solid.
Yet the same problems remain. The place is a terrible mess. There’s no plan. There’s rubbish everywhere. Half the houses have never been completed (top picture above). There are potholes in all the roads. Power supplies are unreliable and the power station belches out terrible pollution (bottom picture).
Plus with the independence new absurdities have arisen: ‘Kosovo’ mobile phones actually have a Monaco prefix (+377) while landlines still use Serbian prefixes (+381). Serbian mobiles don’t work in Kosovo, except when you approach Mitrovica. Planes flying to Pristina are not allowed to use Serbian airspace (so Ljubljana-Pristina flies over the Adriatic). There’s also a silly game played with car numberplates, and what plates can be used where – consensus is that Bosnian plates seem to be the most universally useful.
Most absurd of all is the issue of recognising Kosovo. The main pedestrianised street in central Pristina is adorned with the flags that have recongised Kosovo (France, UK, Italy etc.) yet a little further on there are the slogans in graffiti on the walls ‘EULEX Made in Serbia’ (left picture above) and a huge mural with the same slogan on the wall of the EULEX HQ. Photos of this can be found on Flickr. Yet the very countries that compose the EU are most of the main countries that have recognised Kosovo.
All of the tensions are most clearly played out in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, a city divided in two by its famous bridge – the barbed wire at the end of the bridge is pictured in the photo on the right above. You cross the bridge from the Kosovo Albanian populated southern side into the Serbian populated northern part of the town and everything changes. There are pictures of Vladimir Putin in the windows, everything is both tidier and more sombre, and the language and alphabet are different. The cars driving in front of the soldiers there to guarantee the rule of law areall have no numberplates, the plates removed to ensure the safety of the drivers.
So what about the international role in Pristina? As UNMIK and KFOR downsize so the role of the EU increases with EULEX and ICO; the international presence becomes more stable and structural, working more on capacity building than peace keeping. Yet there are a multitude of tensions between the various organisations present on the ground, such as the issue of which offices different organisations occupy and which legal system applies to the decisions taken by each of them. A crowd of young, cosmopolitan expats staff these organisations, drinking in smart cafés close to the OSCE that most locals could never afford. There’s undoubtedly a distance between the internationals and the locals, but equally a distance between the organisations on the ground and their political masters in the developed world whose focus has moved on to conflicts perceived to be more pressing, more urgent.
Who gains from Kosovo as things are currently arranged? No-one does as far as I can tell. Things are slowly improving, but with unemployment still at 40% and tensions with the countries around not seeming to diminish, is Kosovo just going to be held in some sort of international straightjacket? I wonder, I wonder.
[UPDATE] No sooner had I written this than the news came that Boris Tadic was in Madrid, meeting José Luis Zapatero who declared that Spain’s position on Kosovo is not going to change. Divide and rule, EU.