- Mission 1: Stand before one of the world’s proclaimed “ugliest buildings”, the National Library of Kosovo (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Visit the picturesque city and historic cultural capital of Prizren (DEFERRED);
- Mission 3: Find the controversial abandoned and desecrated Serbian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Head to Bill Clinton Boulevard and find out the reasons for Kosovo’s admiration for the former US president (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Travel north to the divided, turbulent city of Mitrovica, where Albanian and Serbian communities are separated by a bridge- key to understanding modern day conflict (DEFERRED).
Highlight: My first impression of the people of Kosovo and their generous and considerate nature (story to follow).
Lowlight: Pristina is not the prettiest nor most visually vibrant of cities. Kosovo does boast many picturesque locations. Sadly time did not permit me to see them on this occasion.
Feat of Architecture: The National Library of Kosovo– coined as one of the “world’s ugliest buildings/eyesores”, resembling a stack of crates wearing little Albanian hats (qeleshe). Naturally, I disagree with this unfair branding!
Recce Fact: Not only is Kosovo Europe’s youngest country (at least for the majority who recognise it as such), but it also contains Europe’s youngest population, with a median age of just 28.7 years (Germany has one of the oldest at 46.8).
Every now and then, visiting a new place will make you stop and think. Regardless if one refers to it as a self-declared and widely recognised independent country or as a historical and modern-day province of Serbia, Kosovo is a true work in progress.
Kosovo may be one of the world’s newest countries (declaring independence in 2008), but the road towards thriving as a stable, independent country is still a turbulent one fraught with challenges. This week (March 2017), Kosovo have once again made the news headlines with President Hashim Thaci controversially announcing the intention to establish its own official armed forces outside of the official governmental process. Meanwhile, troubles continue in the deeply divided flashpoint of Mitrovica in the north, and violent anti-government rallies are still commonplace in the capital city.
According to passportindex.org, the Kosovo passport ranks 86/95 in terms of passport-power, which is one above North Korea and on par with Myanmar. That means that passport holders can only visit 12 countries completely visa-free – far from ideal.
An Opening Anecdote about the Code of Albanian People
I feel it would be improper to launch straight into my usual commentary without first saying a few words about a powerful collective spirit of Albanian people which became evident on my rather eventful bus trip into Kosovo…
Pristina was merely a 2.5 hour bus journey from Skopje. Unsure which platform I was meant to be waiting at for the bus to depart in Macedonia, I checked the signs on each of the large coaches, before approaching a van-like minibus at Platform 1 with the handwritten words “Shkup-Prishtinë” (Shkup is the Albanian name for Skopje). Myself and two other female passengers set off on a tense initial journey, as the bus driver lit-up a cigarette while talking away on his mobile phone, blasting the horn in between few near misses while exiting the terminus. The van/bus seemed to just pull over at random roadside locations and pick up other passengers, who were mainly elderly and also included a lady in a guard’s uniform.
As we approached the Macedonian border, the driver stopped at a petrol station to buy himself another packet of cigarettes (incidentally, he also stopped by a roadside market to pick up a few bags of peppers) and handed us the clipboard where we should each write our name and passport details for the border checks. Despite being visibly “foreign”, I found myself suddenly nominated as the appointed form-filler-outer, as all the little old folk handed me their passports and ID cards. “Uh-oh”, I thought. I had recollections of the Irish Police winning the Ig Nobel Prize for catching and documenting the most notorious repeat offender for driving offences; a Polish individual known as “Prawo Jazdy“, or “Driving License” in Polish (only in Ireland…). Fortunately, everything seemed to check-out okay at the Macedonian border.
Just before reaching the Kosovo border, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, an elderly lady sitting across from me began to appear visibly ill and gradually slumped forward onto her knees. The driver stopped the bus and all the other passengers rallied around her, offering water, comfort and any assistance they could. The female border guard tipped out the contents of her handbag in a frantic search for any contents that could help. Another lady carefully loosened the headscarf from around her neck to allow her to breathe but also maintain her dignity. As soon as the bus reached the Kosovo border, a gentleman disembarked and escorted the lady off to get assistance, opting to remain with her rather than get back on the bus.
Had the same event occurred on a bus bound from any individualistic Western European capital, no doubt it would have been a case of public bystander effect, followed by leaving the little old lady at the first available drop-off location with a few semi-sincere “Are you all right?” queries to ease consciences, before getting back on the road ASAP so to avoid inconveniencing anyone’s day. In this case, I was indeed the helpless bystander, unsure what action to take, but so impressed by the way these wonderful strangers were handling the situation. I really doubt the gentleman had intended to get off at the border, but he decided to take responsibility and ensure the lady in need received aid. It was during this bus trip that I first witnessed one of the most admirable qualities of Albanian people, which I later learned was referred to as “besa“; in this case, taking care of those in need but most often associated with gracious hospitality.
Besa (“keeping the promise”) is the unspoken Albanian code of honour dating back to the 15th century which, at the heart of it, means taking responsibility for others and extending one’s hospitality to anyone, regardless if they are Muslim/non-Muslim, or in spite of their nationality or ethnicity. Many Jews found a safe-haven among Albanian people during WWII, as their leaders instructed them, not only to offer shelter and food, but to live as one and integrate them within their very own families. As a result, the Jewish population in Albania grew proportionally (although were not immune to Nazi ethnic cleansing) whilst other populations throughout Europe were decimated. Perhaps we should all rethink our own attitudes the next time a stranger comes knocking…
En route from Macedonia
Never have I seen such a volume of industrial activity passing through any countryside as en route to Pristina. New luxury properties, warehouses and outlet units were being constructed for miles around- a reasonable indicator of an improving economic status, providing these units will secure buyers. But the one thing that really stood out to me was that for every small cluster of houses scattered throughout the countryside, there was always an accompanying mosque, with the unmistakable silhouette of a minaret (slender tower) pointing up to the sky. Religion is clearly of importance to the people of Kosovo. While ethnically Albanian Muslims are renowned for being relatively moderate/liberal, a.k.a. “Muslim Lite”, it is one aspect which differentiates Kosovo slightly from neighbouring Albania; the majority are specifically Sunni Muslims and consistently practiced their Islamic faith while part of Yugoslavia, whilst in Albania, religion was banned during the Communist era and atheism spread at the time. There is also a greater proportion of Catholicism and Orthodox religions in Albania.
I shan’t lie; Pristina is not a picturesque city, unlike Prizren with its Ottoman/Byzantine appeal and Shar mountain backdrop, or Mitrusha, home to Kosovo’s most scenic nature park and waterfalls. The city could be described mostly as “beige” with dense, tired-looking buildings and blocks of flats. But the real gems are the architectural oddities found around the city, from the spomenik to the national library, to Bill Clinton Boulevard.
The Legacy of a US President
It’s very apparent that Kosovars adore the US; who were not only instrumental but were pivotal in stabilising Kosovo and enabling it to declare its independence. At the forefront pushing the NATO intervention agenda was then-president – Bill Clinton. This charismatic-looking monument of the president erected in so-called”Bill Clinton Boulevard” seems quite bizarre to the outsider, especially with the dull, tired-looking housing estate in the backdrop. But to the majority of Kosovo, he was a liberator.
It may be easy for Western Europe to forget that the Kosovo war was a recent one of ethnic conflict, ending officially in 1999. As such, there has been a longstanding UN security and administration presence in the region which has been both commended and criticised for its effectiveness or lack thereof.
One may question the intervention of the US in the conflict in Kosovo, as we are conditioned to query the true motives in every external military or political action. The US led a military response with the support of NATO (either implicitly or through combined efforts), but without the support of the UN (as Russia and China were deeply opposed). Officially, the motivation was to cease FR Yugoslav/Serbian aggression and prevent ethnic cleansing/genocide of Kosovar-Albanians, thus protecting humanitarian interests and stabilising this region of Europe. These reasons may seem like the usual pretense that we tend to be skeptical about, yet they are indeed plausible reasons (albeit not exhaustive).
NATO commenced a highly criticised 78-day air bombing campaign against the regime of Milošević on Serbian military positions, government buildings and infrastructure when it was clear that there would be no diplomatic solution to stop continued expulsion of Kosovar-Albanians and massacre of civilians by Serbian troops (the opposing Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic-Albanian paramilitary organisation were also responsible for many atrocities at the time). While a campaign of this magnitude was successful in bringing an end to the civil war, many still dispute the justification and proportion of the actions, with groups such as Amnesty International arguing that NATO was responsible for numerous war crimes (i.e. civilian losses) during the offensive.
It may be difficult to fathom why the US would jump to the defence of Kosovar-Albanians given that there is little-to-no connection historically, ethnically, religiously, strategically or otherwise, and while comparable plights of peoples have been overlooked elsewhere in the world. Suggested ulterior motives for the US/NATO intervention include increasing US influence and presence in Europe/the Balkans, to assert military strength and to follow through on promises to use force where deemed necessary. Other direct economic interests have also been suggested to a lesser extent, e.g. the fact that Kosovo is rich in untapped natural resources, but are less convincing. One thing is however clear; that NATO’s credibility was at stake in dealing with rogue states who did not adhere to their key principles of democracy and the rule of law.
The Ugliest Building in the World?
A highly irregular building, yes. But the world’s ugliest? Hardly! Designed by Croatian architect, Andrija Mutnjaković and constructed 1982, the National Library of Kosovo once sheltered refugees and was even used as a command centre at one point when occupied by the Serbian army. Amusingly, when it first opened, onlookers assumed that the cage-like feature was part of the remaining construction scaffolding which hadn’t yet been removed.
It is estimated that almost half of all library books in Kosovo were destroyed during the turbulent 90s. Millions of euros of investment has been required to restore library archives and update collections after a long period of neglect, which is still in progress. A large canvas of Mother Teresa warmly greets the public at the entrance, marked by four raised flags: Kosovo, Europe, Albania and of course the much loved USA.
The unique design has not only been the subject of controversy over the years, but has proven to be open to interpretation. Originally intended to capture both Islamic and Byzantine Orthodox architectural forms (therefore striking a balance between Albanian and Serbian interests, respectively), in the end it is impossible to please everybody. Mind you, domes are common to both and I haven’t yet seen any grand mosques or cathedrals shrink-wrapped in metal mesh. Some Serbians protested about the little Albanian hat-like features (qeleshe) and… well, truth be told I’m not sure what the Kosovar-Albanians have got to say about it, but either way it does resemble a poor tormented and caged creature, does it not? At least the dome and mesh combination provides a pleasant lighting effect in the inner atria.
Now the National Library of Kosovo had been on my architecture-spotting hitlist for quite some time, but I was in for a bonus treat with another striking oddity of a building which was the Palace of Youth and Sports (Pallati i Rinise dhe Sporteve/Палата омладине и спорта). Fellow Trekkies will understand when I say that this building really looks like something to be found on Cardassia Prime.
Due to extensive fire damage back in 2000 (not due to vandalism but an electrical fault), the main arena is now sadly disused pending complete restoration, but the other facilities are still in use despite it having well-outlived its intended asset life. The Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, as it were, commissioned the facility’s construction and decided to name it after two People’s Heroes (“Boro and Ramiz”); one Serbian and one Albanian, once again attempting to strike some sort of balance.
The Desecrated, Unfinished Serbian Orthodox Church
Situated just a stone’s throw from the National Library of Kosovo, officially, the incomplete Church of Christ the Saviour is a controversial construction on contested land (claimed by both the University of Pristina and the Serbian Orthodox Church). Whilst this is a fact, the true nature of its controversy runs much deeper.
Building progress ceased in the late nineties due to the war. Seeing the church’s construction as a provocative move to assert Serbian control and make a bold political statement, it has since been repeatedly vandalised, the subject of arson attacks, desecrated, been urinated in (and probably worse) by protestors and has even featured in a “distasteful” music video by renowned Kosovar popstar, Era Istrefi which got the Orthodox Church’s blood boiling.
Authorities have made efforts to seal the doors to prevent further incidents until the fate of this sorry, desolate building is determined. Eventual completion of the church (as a church) is realistically not on the cards. Other options range from complete demolition to converting it into a neutral and non-religious environment open to all.
Kosovo – A Solution Among Divided Interests?
Today, merely 4% of Kosovo’s population are ethnically Serb and are mainly concentrated in the north. So why are Serbia still defiantly holding onto the region? They see Kosovo as the historical cradle of Serbia and of great religious importance to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Moreover, practically every region of the Balkans has been defended with extensive bloodshed and Serbs will recall the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the Ottomans and its importance in Serbian heritage. Add to that the insult of witnessing the destruction of many of their heritage sites and churches by Kosovar rioters and extremists, abductions and murders by the KLA as well as claims of intimidation or discrimination of the Serb minority by the Albanian majority.
The counterposition by Albanians includes arguments such as Kosovo never belonged to Serbs in the first place and that Kosovar-Albanians are direct descendants of the Dardanians (Illyrians) who were already present before the arrival of Slavs. They feel strongly that they have endured long periods of persecution, ethnic cleansing, censorship, explusion and generally being treated as subhuman under Serbian state control, despite voting overwhelmingly for independence in 1991. Thousands of Kosovar victims of Serbian forces have never been accounted for, and it is claimed that there have been cover-up attempts of vast proportions. And above all, they comprise a 94% majority of the 2 million or so population.
Conflict in the Balkans has always been a complex matter and I would hate to try to oversimplify the situation. There is never a simple border shifting solution where multiple ethnic groups exist and the fact that Kosovo was already deeply entrenched in poverty, crime and corruption before Milošević came to power was a recipe for disaster. There are always right and wrong intentions and actions on both sides and it would be miscalculated, as observers, simply label a nation or people as “black or white”. It is evident (see alleged list) that atrocities were committed by all parties involved, and NATO is not excluded from this list, although civilian casualties were claimed to occur through unfortunate collateral damage or by gross error.
Kosovo is neither a member of the UN nor the EU, and the latter will not change whilst Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus continue not to recognise its independence. One common denominator (which is not unique to these members) is threats from potential breakaway regions within their own borders, which they do not wish to advocate. The benefits which EU membership could bring at this crucial time in building the economy of the state remains highly desirable hanging fruit still rather out of reach. It appears that Serbia, in time, will have little choice but to recognise Kosovo’s secession by one means or another in order to build a stable economy and promote a secure future for all citizens. Even in that scenario, big questions remain: How will they tackle corruption with the existing government? What other obstacles need to be overcome before Kosovo’s acceptance into the EU, or even NATO? Would the remaining opposition countries change their position on the basis of Serbian acceptance? Would there be an exchange of Serbia-Kosovo territory to protect the interests of respective citizens? Will the end game result in the realisation of a Greater Albania and what are the implications for Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece etc.? Are Kosovars ready to unite with Albania in the near future or would they prefer to enjoy a little more autonomy first to get the region back on its feet?
Political Grafitti (“why him, not me?”) expressing empathy for Ramush Haradinaj, former KLA commander arrested in France and was awaiting a decision on extradition to Serbia at the time of writing. He has since been acquitted of all charges for a second time.
Food of Kosovo
When talking about Kosovo’s cuisine, there is really nothing particularly excusive that I could source. It does not truly have an identity of its own in this aspect and is heavily influenced by Western cuisine, and to a lesser extent Albanian. I did not personally encounter any establishments offering Serbian dishes in the capital of Pristina, but it’s not to say one cannot find any.
One notable dish which is known for being strongly linked to Kosovo is “flia“; a layered crepe-like calorific delicacy found in local bakeries. It’s not inherently sweet and tends to be eaten with savoury accompaniments such as kaymak (half way between a cream and a cheese).
Speaking of drawing Albanian comparisons, I was curious about the differences between Albanians from Albania and Albanians from Kosovo. Albanian identity is strong no matter where Albanians reside and when you enquire of individuals in my experience, they will not specify if they are Kosovar-Albanians or Macedonian Albanians etc. Albanian is a term which describes ethnic identity, rather than a national one. I believe it’s a fair assessment to conclude that they collectively feel one and the same. Having said that, Kosovar-Albanians are often viewed to be more widely religious (Muslim) than their Albania-based counterparts and speak primarily with a Gheg dialect, whereas Tosk is present in Albania (particularly the south). Such linguistic nuances are wasted on me anyway in the case of this very unique-sounding language.
Sounds of Kosovo
Do have a look at some selected Sounds of Kosovo on the Euro Jukebox, featuring aforementioned Orthodox church-displeasing popstar – Era Istrefi and the best of British-claimed Kosovars; Dua Lipa and Rita Ora.
Mission Kosovo Summary
In the end, I return to the subject of Pristina and conclude with the lasting image of the Newborn monument, which has its paint scheme rejuvenated every February, symbolizing rebirth and continuous change, erasing old graffiti. First unveiled in the year of declared independence, it symbolises that “a NEW life is BORN”, “NEW hope is BORN”, “a NEW future is BORN” and “a NEW country is BORN”. Perhaps it is not an exemplar of optimism, and Pristina is anything but pristine, but it certainly does represent a realistic kind of hope.