There are thousands of ambitious children and young people in Kosovo who want to learn foreign languages, 3d printing and robot design. Many young people are looking for funding to grow their innovative start-ups. They want to take the country – or at least themselves – forward, but on the road to success stands a decayed system of communism, ghosts of war, and ethnic dividing lines that politicians are reluctant or unable to correct. This is how one could summarize things after spending few days in Kosovo. There’s both delightful optimism and extreme gloominess present in people’s talk.
Kosovo is the country where the war led to international intervention at the end of the 1990s. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia ten years ago. Now Kosovo would like to join the European Union and the Military Union NATO, but it has not been even accepted as a member of United Nations.
"We are tired of talking about things because nothing changes. People have lost their hope a long time ago", says Aleksandar Arsić, in North part of the divided city of Mitrovica, where Serbs have a large majority. Would a third of Kosovo's 1.9 million people really leave their country, as the queries seem to show? Almost half of people living in Serb areas are considering leaving Kosovo. Arsić decides to make a poll in the restaurant; four out of five Serbs are planning to depart.
At the table sits also my travel companion, 27-year old Kosovo Albanian Arben Sejdaj, who came to Finland as a asylum seeker in 1997 but has now returned to his native country. He is working for the European Center for Minority Issues in Kosovo and has investigated Kosovo's distribution lines and policy issues. There are enough topics and problems to explore. "There is a lot of ethnic nationalism on both sides, but many people are able to look beyond the gap and hatred and focus on important issues such as improving the quality of the education and health system and combating poverty and unemployment," says Sejdaj.
About 90 percent of Kosovans are Albanians and seven percent are Serbs. Both sides are still skeptical, or even frighten about each other. In Mitrovica, the Ibar river bridge is dividing the residential areas of two ethnic groups and it’s guarded by Kosovar police officers and Italian police. For safety reasons it can’t be exceeded by car.
Trust in the ability of the political elite to change things is appallingly low, especially with the Serbs. In an interview with the Aktive-NGO 96 per cent of Serbs reported that they did not trust any of the Albanian politician. Trust was also scarce for the "own" Serb politicians: 78 percent did not trust anybody. The most popular politician in the survey was Oliver Ivanović, who was trusted by ten percent. In January, he was killed with six bullets in front of his party bureau. The murder is still unclear.
Something about the complexity of the whole story tells the fact that Ivanovic was in criminal trial, but was also considered as a rare bridge builder between two groups of people. He talked about good Albania and offered Kosovo an alternative to Serbia-led Serbian politics. "It takes a long time for Kosovo Serbs to get some similar political leader," says Miodrag Marinković, Program Director of Aktiv Organization, who knew Ivanovic personally.
The timing of Ivanović’s murder was bad also in that sence, that since beginning of this year, EU has tried to cast a new belief in the membership of six Western Balkan countries - including Kosovo. However, five EU countries have not recognized Kosovo's independence.
Kosovo Albanians are strongly oriented towards the West and want to join the Union. The United States is nothing less than loved: In the center of Pristina there is a statue of President Bill Clinton who led the NATO-bombings – bombings that liberated Kosovars – and next to the statue is a clothing store called Hillary. "In Kosovo you can criticize God but not the United States or NATO," says Augustin Palokaj, EU correspondent to Koha Ditore, the biggest daily newspaper in the country.
There are still about 4,000 NATO KFOR soldiers in the country, which is the only army in the country. Therefore, access to NATO is not considered as necessary as a question of EU membership. Only one tenth of Serbs would like Kosovo to join the EU. Many Serbs even oppose the independence of Kosovo and so does Serbia. 65 percent of Kosovo Serbs consider Russia as the most important international ally. In the four Serb-majority municipalities of northern Kosovo, public institutions are under the authority and funding of the Serbian Government. About 80 percent of these Serbs say they are only rarely or not in the Albanian majority.
There are many cynical twists of international politics in front of Kosovo's EU track, but it is widely acknowledged that the country is not even close to the EU membership. Organized crime, such as drug smuggling, the rule of law and, in particular, corruption, will emerge repeatedly in the discussions.
Corruption is considered as a huge problem in every level from health care to bidding the major public projects. Marinković says that his brother had to pay 1,200 euros to pass the exam that was required for his university degree. "He tried sixteen times to pass the exam. Then he paid, and after that he didn’t have to study at all. "
According to some people, buying a diploma or paying bribes for study and workplaces is common. On top of that, the education system is quite weak. Because of the high birth rate, more than 40 pupils can sit in the same classrooms. Since the national politicians do not show the desire to repair the education system, one kosovar has decided to do it with his own hands and, from outside the system. Hope to wakes up when you meet Vllaznim Xhihan and get acquainted with his Bone.vet project.
In Finnish bonne vet means "do it yourself". At two locations of the organization, in Gjakova and Pristina, children between the ages of 6 and 16 are learning coding and building robots and other electronic devices with their own hands. In one course, a six 16-year-old youth group built the first electric car in Kosovo's history.
Xhihah refers to the school system of his country of origin as "out-of-date disaster ". "Politicians should serve their country, not vice versa. Their greed is limitless, and people are tired of it." In his youth Xhiha studied electrical engineering in Switzerland. He founded Newave, a company that has developed power supply systems, and ABB bought it for a price of EUR 150 million. Now, those millions will build the future of Kosovo.
The organization funded by Xhihan himself and an international supporters cooperates with 55 schools and is trying to involve all Kosovo schools. Xhihah counts that, in one decade, there is a "70,000 skilled child's army" that has been inspired by the Bone.vetti courses. It could revolutionize the business field in Kosovo. One of the assistants of the organization is a 21-year-old Andi Dragusha. Previously he planned to move abroad, but has now changed his mind. "The enthusiasm of Vllaznim has grabbed me. I want to stay here. "
One of the teachers of the Bone.vets is a pretty special person: Glenn Noble, 51, is an electrical engineer from Idaho, USA. He has lived with his family in Kosovo for ten years. "I love Kosovo. This is a young and dynamic country with lots of energy and potential. I am very optimistic and I think that I'm here until I die." Behind Noble, two teenage girls are building a device that follows the sun movements. On the other side of the table, a robot is being built.
The same kind of "new Kosovo" enthusiastic is Uranik Begu, Director of ICK, Kosovo Innovation Center, who co-operates with the Slush event in Helsinki. There are many types of high-tech startup companies operating in under his roof. For example, group of young man from Formon company proudly presents the 3D printer, which is they made from natural biodegradable material. In the other room one team has developed a Happy Feet mobile application. It scans the shape of the legs so that the one can buy the perfectly comfortable shoes from internet. On one wall is a reward for the US Space Administration's Nasa application competition.
Mr Begu says that the ICC Center's objective is to reform Kosovo's economic structure and to get rid of the "brain drain" of talent. "If we get a good ecosystem for businesses, we can bring the brain back. We can become Berlin or Silicon Valley in this region, "Begu dreams. Finnish-born Arben Sejdaj says that because of the inflamed politics and incompleteness of Kosovo society, young people have been forced into putting effort for themselves."This is the force that takes this country forward. It is positive that people will not give up. Hope is not dead."
This article was originally published in the largest Finnish language daily, the Helsingin Sanomat, March 23, 2018. Link:https://www.hs.fi/ulkomaat/art-2000005614495.html
Freely translated from the original article.