Celebrate we must

Kosovo’s 10th Anniversary of Independence has found us at the end of our rope, but there is still tenderness and resilience to be celebrated amongst its people.

The Anniversary of Kosovo’s Independence, usually a forgettable affair, has found us kosovars at the end of our rope. Perhaps this is a dramatic statement, as Prishtina is covered with blue and yellow lights, two stages set up on either end of Mother Teresa Boulevard (one awaiting the acclaimed Rita Ora) and festive balloons festooned on streetlights usually covered with death announcements. But the people of these lands have refined the art of living on the edge, dancing on the line that divides pure ecstasy from catastrophe.

Just days before the tenth Anniversary of Kosovo’s Independence, Facebook -patriots squabbled for days about whether the Albanian national flag should be removed from Prishtina’s largest roundabout in Ulpiana. Some live-action ‘heroes’ even came to the poor flag’s defense as government officials decided that state symbols should prevail. As night fell, officials tasked with this noble enterprise went to the roundabout, one of the most congested traffic intersections in the city, to raise Kosovo’s blue and yellow flag. The irony of what happened next is beautiful: the officials found the flag pole defunct and they couldn’t switch the flag. As the officials struggled in the dark to fix the damned pole, in a Monty Pythonesque twist of events, somebody made off with the Kosovo standard. The whole thing was being streamed live on local media – our national tragedy: the case of the lost flag.

Needless to say, a different flag was soon found and hoisted high. The Kosovo flag now waves proudly as vehicles descend from Veternik through the mist of Prishtina’s perennial toxic smog.

At first, I found the debate on whether the Albanian flag belongs in a Kosovo roundabout ludicrous, but after this interlude, I find the ‘drama’ not only indicative of contemporary identity issues (is there such a thing as a Kosovar?), but also a symbol of this country’s greatest fault: its dysfunctionality.

Although we’ve entered 2018 after a rollercoaster of a campaign year, the first question on the tip of every tongue still is the timing of the next elections. For the past ten years, every general election in Kosovo has been a snap election. While, indubitably, this is a result of political crises, or a general lack of consensus in parliament to push for solutions on particular issues. It is also an indicator of how deep the dysfunctionality runs: from the passing of laws to enforcing them, the Rechtsstaat, a state of justice, seems an alien concept to our leaders.

For the past ten years we have failed our children – 70 per cent of whom are functionally illiterate; we have failed our elderly, who still do not have access to their hard-earned pensions earned during Yugoslav times; we have failed our teachers, who year after year are promised raises they don’t get; we have failed our poor – so many of whom beg on the streets and in bars, without a shelter or even a single soup kitchen to turn to; we have failed our youth, who are deprived of good schools and freedom of movement (and are all drafting their exit plans). We have failed our women, a mere three per cent of which inherit property, and those who fled abusive households had nowhere to turn to in January this year as all shelters were closed due to a lack of funds. We have also failed our north, where Serbs are afraid to vote outside of the established political leadership, and ten years after independence they are more in denial of Kosovo’s statehood than ever before.

What is the gap between our expectations in 2008 and our reality ten years later? Prishtina Insight and the Oral History Initiative tried to answer this question by collecting personal stories, memories and reflections on Kosovo’s first Declaration of Independence. While conducting interviews, I realized that people could rarely speak about 2008 without emphasizing how their expectations were crushed, or if they were optimists, conveying the sense that not everything was great. The actual national trauma of all of Kosovo’s communities is not the flag – but the flag pole that doesn’t budge, that fails, over and over again, rusted by neglect.

Since 1999, this country has seen many an international come and go – some administered, some pilfered – but all, ultimately, left, bidding us adieu with a tip of the hat, humming along the chorus “It’s in your hands now”. But the local elites have not changed much, and since the UN Administration days, they have always been highly dependent on international representatives to make any meaningful moves.

As one of our interviewees reminds us, “This was not the first time Kosovo declared independence”, a reminder I’ve often had to make to my own compatriots who forget that while the Republic of Kosovo was born in 2008, these people and the structures that governed them were not. A state was built out of the ashes of the destruction of WWII; a state was improvised, but survived, in the 1990s, and we rebuilt this state again after 1999.

But we are on the edge: we have seen way too many of our neighbors or friends cross forests and rivers to get away, buses chock full of disillusioned people whom the new Kosovo had failed. We have seen so much proof of theft, double-crossing and obvious lack of integrity, mostly amongst our elite, that we believe in nothing and nobody, not even the ballot we cast ourselves.

But when I think of how we fit eight people in a car to return from Macedonia only six days after NATO troops had entered Kosovo, desperate to get home as quickly as possible, my hope and faith is restored. There is tenderness to be found here, among us and in this place, still. The measure of our potential is not exhausted – far from it. Both the will and the resilience to make this country are here. But first we must fix that pole. /Prishtina Insight