Kosovo held regional elections over the weekend…and it rather looks as if the Serbs in the north of the country, in Mitrovica, stayed away in droves, notwithstanding the instructions from Belgrade that they should participate in the elections. The Serbian government stance is in turn dictated by Coffee Housers’ favourite EU politician, Britain’s own Cathy Ashton. She has intimated that Serbia’s bid to join the EU will depend on its support for the elections, which in turn is linked to the implementation of her EU plan for a Serbia-Kosovo deal. While I was in Pristina I met someone who was involved in the talks that led to the plan, and his assessment was that as far as Baroness Ashton was concerned, her own and the EU’s interests took precedence over that of Kosovo.
Kosovo is, in fact, an example of how the international community in all its manifold manifestations: the UN, the EU and umpteen NGOs, can make a hash of things. (Which isn’t to say that local politicians can’t do so unaided; by God they do.) And let’s not forget the contribution of the US. It was the Americans who first promoted the present PM, Hashim Thaci, as an alternative to the pacific and scholarly Kosovo president, Ibrahim Rugova, presumably on the basis that they could control the former KLA leader but not Rugova. (The ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Serbs that happened in the first six months after Nato finished off the conflict took place under Thaci’s aegis.)
And the extent of US influence over Kosovo now can hardly be overstated. It is reliably reported that the present president of Kosovo, a woman, Atifete Jahjaga, was appointed by the US; indeed at the meeting at which Kosovar party leaders were informed about the choice, the US ambassador pushed an envelope with her name in at them; when it was opened, no-one knew who on earth she was. (For some reason, her nickname is ‘Envelope’.) It’s also rumoured that the Americans write Thaci’s big speeches for him, with their wholesome emphasis on pluralism. Which may not prevent them pulling the rug from under him before too long.
But given that Kosovo gained full independence in 2008, it’s hard, notwithstanding the worst efforts of the US and the EU (in its present institutional guise, as Eulex), and the UN, to blame anyone other than local politicians for the criminality, corruption, cronyism and cynicism that characterises local politics. Unemployment is over 50 per cent; privatisation has been a means for shifting public assets into the hands of select friends of politicians; the only flourishing industries are higher education (a new private university seems to open every few months) and construction (building is a useful way to park the proceeds of organised crime) which in turn is underpinned by the flow of a significant percentage of construction materials through customs without the payment of tax or duties, which of course distorts the market.
Any Coffee Houser who’s remotely interested in the area could do worse than look up the work of an excellent thinktank, Kipred, led by the admirable former ambassador, Luzim Peci.
But my intention here is to highlight a development in Kosovo that really cheered me up when I was there, the advent of a new party which may do for Kosovo politics what the Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, did for Italian politics. It’s called The Party of the Strong, and it was thought up by its leader and Legendary President, a young 26-year-old graphic designer, Visar Arifaj (above), over drinks with some friends a couple of years ago.
It’s a bit like Borat, only actually funny. ‘We say what the others say, only we magnify it by ten,’ he told me. And he says what the other parties do. It’s run on social media: Kosovo not only has the youngest population in Europe but correspondingly, the population with the highest rate of internet use.
When Arifaj appeared with other candidates on a TV show, he, like them, was asked why he wanted to stand. ‘To gain power and make money,’ he declared. At this, the audience collapsed. Indeed the Party’s hymn is, I Am Going to Be a Millionaire. All its members are Vice Presidents – ‘if someone isn’t fit to be a Vice President, he shouldn’t be a candidate’, says Arifaj.
The party enthusiastically promotes the privatisation…of everything (‘in collaboration with our supporting companies’). It wants to set up universities in every neighbourhood. (‘The Prime Minister appears to want universities in every village; well, we’re going further.’) As for education, ‘we will eliminate high schools’ to oblige everyone to proceed from primary school to university. He has in mind those politicians whose high school education was limited yet who somehow managed to get a university degree, online, or from India.
As for the Europeans who are everywhere in Kosovo in NGO’s and EU bodies, attracted by high, tax free incomes, he declares that he is happy for Kosovo to have these international institutions which are European and provide Europeans from the embattled single currency with safe jobs. ‘We have such high standards, Europeans are willing to leave their lives at home to come here.’
He makes play, too, with EU membership. ‘Everyone talks about European integration,’ he reflects. ‘Our PM talks about Euro-Atlantic integration. We say we’re in favour of indo-European integration.’
Anyway, you get the gist. Each country gets the satire it deserves, and it was high time for this bit of the Balkans to get done over by young, clever, funny people like these. Except in Kosovo, reality often makes satire redundant. If the Party of the Strong manages a few seats in this election, it will be a sign that normal people there are finally having their say.