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Youth Despair of Decent Future in Kosovo

Sokol Ferizi Pristina, Mitrovica, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Vienna and Brussels

Faced with a dismal education system, political uncertainty and economic stagnation, many young Kosovars are opting to leave.

“I can’t take this anymore! I have simply stopped thinking about what’s around me,” says Eremire Krasniqi, a 22-yearold sociology student from Pristina. Taking another shot of rakia, a homemade brandy, in a local café, Eremire can count on the sympathy of many youthful fellow drinkers.

Her attitude is typical of young people in Kosovo today, few of whom see home as a place where they can pursue their ambitions. With no job prospects, and no end in sight for the dispute over Kosovo’s status that seems to block progress in all aspects of life, they are giving up.

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. Although the birth rate has fallen in recent years, half of its roughly 2-million-strong population is under the age of 25, according to a recent report of the UN Development Programme, UNDP, while over 65 per cent is under 30, according to government statistics. In Western Europe, only Ireland, where 40 per cent of the population was under 25 in 1996, comes close to matching this demographic profile.

But its unemployment rate, according to UNDP figures from 2005, remains around 40 per cent and young people comprise 29 per cent of the number. Statistics suggest around 530 unemployed candidates compete for every vacant position.

And it’s hard to get a competitive edge, as opportunities on offer in Kosovo to build career skills are woeful. The territory’s Albanian majority has only one public institute of higher education, the University of Pristina, whose reputation is poor. As for its Serb minority, already confined to disparate enclaves and a small section of land in the north, they have to make do with the University of North Mitrovica, whose reputation is even worse.

Most young people despair of their tormented homeland. According to the 2007 UNDP report, almost 50 per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 would emigrate if they could. “I definitely need to move away for five years,” Krasniqi adds.

In Europe, they see a chance to learn and work, but getting there is by no means easy. Educational schemes are limited, and few can make their way to work in the European Union legally.

To make matters worse, those who do manage to leave rarely come back, with no chance to use their skills in the economic desert that awaits them there. For those who don’t, there are few choices remaining: do nothing – or worse, do drugs; resort to crime; or find succour in religion.

“Having a large young population is of no help as long as there is no economic activity,” says Rainer Munz, a Vienna-based demographer. If Kosovo’s brightest and best are held back like this for much longer, its future looks grim.

Does anyone want a degree?

According to Munz, Kosovo is squandering its most precious asset – its educated young people. But the problem begins with education itself, for the system does little to help those who want to get ahead in such a difficult job market.

Florie Xhemajli, a sociology major, is deeply disappointed with its quality. “I am so fed up with being a student that I no longer think I am one,” she says. “I have lost touch with the university, which has dulled my ambitions and killed the good studying habits I had in high school.”

Fisnik Osmani, another student, shares her dismay. The only reason he carries on with the courses is to obtain a certificate - “that damned diploma,” he calls it.

Angry students have taken to venting their frustration through colourful demonstrations. In 2004 one students’ group, the Initiative for a Different University, even deluged the university’s main offices with garbage. Gezim Krasniqi, one of those involved, stated at that time that “the only solution for the university is to close it down” as it was turning out “fools with diplomas”.

Governance and Competence in Higher Education, a report published in March 2007 by a local think-tank, the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, KIPRED, savaged the quality of the university. Describing it as inefficient and corruptly managed, it listed some of the “disturbing trends in higher education in Kosovo”: “[E]xams can often be passed after payment, the re-labelling of courses is called ‘reform’ and students have to tolerate professorial arrogance - as doing otherwise may mean never passing the exams needed to graduate.”

The KIPRED report went on: “Critical thinking also remains a low priority, as there is little emphasis on debate, interdisciplinary teaching, group work, or contextual problem-solving.”

Some students freely admit – albeit only in private - that they charge money for good exam results. “I have sat more than 30 exams for different students and usually charge 50 to 100 euros, depending on the difficulty of the exam and the stakes involved in being caught,” one confided.

Lindita Tahiri, a member of the academic staff at the university, says the poor quality of classroom debates is not only a reflection on the teachers. “Our children come from elementary and secondary education that fosters no critical thinking,” she asserts. “When they come to university they are used to memorising facts and repeating them over and over. They don’t think at all.”

Competition in the field has emerged with private colleges, but this has not led to a marked increase in standards. Many have faced problems even obtaining licenses from the education ministry, while, according to experts, the 29 colleges that did do little to raise the bar. “It is ridiculous to believe there’s more quality education in private universities than the public one,” says Milazim Krasniqi, an analyst and journalism professor in Pristina. “The same professors teach both at Pristina University and the private universities!”

Studying abroad – not much of an option

While young Kosovars have few opportunities to advance their skills in their small homeland, they face great difficulties if they want to try elsewhere.

Visa restrictions, applied towards the Western Balkans since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, remain worst for Kosovo, the ongoing dispute with Serbia over its final status making it more isolated in this respect than its neighbours. Thus, the territory was excluded from an agreement reached this September to ameliorate the harshness of the EU’s visa regime for students and professionals from Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.

From 1999, in the early stages of the post-conflict period, a limited number of educational opportunities were made available to Kosovar students. But according to Dukagjin Pupovci, director of the Kosovo Education Centre, “the number of those who benefit from scholarship programmes is almost insignificant”.

The European Commission’s Trans-European Mobility Scheme for University Studies, TEMPUS, is one programme on offer to Kosovars since 2004. But Lindita Tahiri, the scheme’s coordinator in Kosovo, also admits impact has been negligible. “Several projects have been implemented with the help of TEMPUS funds but the programme has not reached out to many and has not been made sufficient use of,” she says.

The problem is not down to lack of money. Between 2004 and 2006, 5 million euros were allocated for Kosovo projects, according to the TEMPUS officials in Brussels. At issue is the fact few Kosovars have the educational skills to access the projects to begin with. As a result, available programmes go to waste. “Last year, a considerable amount of money was not used due to the quality of the projects,” Jean-Marie Castelain, Brussels-based TEMPUS Programme Manager for Kosovo, says.

Erasmus Mundus is another programme on offer. Promoting mobility, it allows graduate students to pursue master degrees in EU countries. “It is open to young people around the world”, says Despina Christadoni of the European Commission agency supervising its implementation.

But Christadoni admits few Kosovars have taken part in this programme, either: “[I]t was three or four last year, and the same this year,” she says. Once again, the low standard of education on offer in Kosovo plays a key part in preventing young people from accessing even the limited number of foreign scholarships in theory available to them.

“The main aim is to have very high quality master courses, very high quality degrees awarded and very high quality students participating, so if a Kosovo student is competing, he or she is doing so with students from around the world,” Christadoni explains.

Luan Shllaku, head of the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, says students are in dire need of greater travel opportunities, and if they can’t get them legally, they will resort to other means. “Someone should muster the courage to make a deal with Europe on giving more freedom of movement to young people,” he says, “or the reality will become so unbearable here that the youth will take to the mountains to find a more prosperous future”.

It’s hard to break a vicious circle

While the attraction of opportunities in the West is strong, many young Kosovars are ready and willing to bring home the skills they have gained whenever they can. But this is not easy.

Arber Domi has just returned from London, where he finished his masters in economics at the London School of Economics, LSE. Earlier, he studied a bachelor programme at LSE as an external student, sitting his exams at the British Council premises in Pristina for three years in row. “Now I am back, I want to make use of the quality education I got and which in Kosovo I lacked ever since primary school,” he says.

But he may be disappointed, if debate in Kosovo on the “brain drain” is anything to go by. At a public tribune held last year, several students who, like Domi, had returned with foreign degrees, complained about the lack of opportunities to use them. They urged the government at least to create a database that listed highly skilled returnees, so that potential employers could know who - and where - they are.

Kujtim Dobruna and Edmond Shabani have tried to fulfil this current deficit. After finishing studies in universities in Austria, in 2002 they founded the Economic Initiative for Kosovo, ECIKS. Based in Vienna, it functions as a one-stop advice shop, offering German-speaking potential investors a range of information on working in Kosovo.

“Many companies from German-speaking regions wishing to invest in Kosovo first knock on our door for purposes ranging from basic background economic facts to contact-making and actual investment possibilities”, Dobruna says.

While such initiatives can clearly help, Mimoza Kusari-Lila, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo and another graduate returnee, believes nothing much will improve in Kosovo economically until the education system is cleaned up at home.

Kusari-Lila, who studied in Pristina and the US before returning to Kosovo, takes a dim view of the education on offer in Pristina. “The quality of universities here is in general highly questionable,” she claims. “Likewise, the quality of the skills of students is not remarkable”.

It’s different for Serbs - but not easier

Young Kosovo Serbs face equal but different problems from those of the Albanian majority. Their one place of higher education is the University of North Mitrovica, UNM, set up after the 1999 exodus of Serbs from Pristina, which has functioned ever since under the tutelage of Belgrade. Though exact statistics are not available, it is believed more than 6,000 students are enrolled there.

Ana Pešikan, Serbia’s Minister of Research and Science, says Belgrade supports UNM to the hilt, “and we deal with it on equal basis, as we do with the rest of the educational institutions in Serbia”.

But many students disagree. Miodrag Pantović says it is good that he can study in his native language in Kosovo without having to go to Serbia proper. “But the quality of education provided in North Mitrovica is lower,” he complains. He claims there is an overall “lack of supervision by the government of Serbia”.

Jelena Kleut, from the University of Novi Sad, who has taught courses in North Mitrovica, says most students “are very, very critical of education they get,” adding: “Most young people distrust the Serbian government. The students we talked to say that all they get is speeches from Serbian officials, who then leave”.

Efforts by international organisations, meanwhile, to bridge the yawning chasm between Kosovo’s Serbian and Albanian students have got almost nowhere.

Right after the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, for example, involved itself in running youth camps to provide young people from different ethnic communities with the chance to get to know one another. But Christopher Pardier, head of the Higher-Education Unit in the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, admits they had scant results. Proof of failure for him was the widespread participation of young people in the ethnic rioting that hit Kosovo in March 2004. “It was a big wake-up call for the [Kosovo] Mission,” Pardier recalls.

While such rioting has not been repeated, a recent UNDP survey of young Kosovars on interethnic reconciliation provided discouraging results. It showed at least 65 per cent of Kosovo Albanian youths rejected even the possibility of being friends with young Serbs, while more than half would not want Serbs as neighbours.

The isolation of Kosovo Serbs comes in different levels. Not only do they share the general isolation of Kosovo from the EU, with its tight visa regime, but they are also subject to ethnic hostility on an intermittent basis. And while they often need a police escort to move from one enclave to another within Kosovo, there is also a degree of stigmatisation of Serbs from Kosovo in Serbia proper.

“If you are a Serb coming from Kosovo and people notice that you speak with a specific accent, they call you a ‘Shiptar’ [an offensive Serbian term for Albanians] and won’t treat you as an equal,” Pantović observes.

Monica Jakobsen, of the George Mason University in Washington, who has taught in North Mitrovica, says young Kosovo Serbs are caught in a bind: “Young individuals really want a change, it’s in their heart, and you can feel it. But the social control is very strong, there’s a real sense of fear”.

Just like their Albanian counterparts, many will leave as soon as they have finished their diplomas. “For the moment I’m thinking I want to stay and build my future in Kosovo”, says Pantović, “but I definitely feel isolated”.

“It’s even worse for friends from enclaves in the south,” he adds. “They have genuine problems with freedom of movement and still have to be transported to the northern part [of Kosovo] by UN buses two or three times a week, with an armed escort.”

Where has all the anger gone?

In spite of the evident frustration expressed by young people from all ethnic groups in Kosovo, it is apathy rather than anger that prevails. The findings of UNDP’s 2007 report back this up: more than 60 per cent of young people believe they cannot make a change in their communities.

Some analysts link this passivity to the tragic events that ended a series of protests by the political movement Vetevendosje, which adamantly opposes the current process of settling Kosovo’s final status. Its leader, Albin Kurti, has been under house arrest since February 2, when he was jailed after a protest in Pristina got out of hand and two demonstrators were shot dead with rubber bullets by a Romanian unit of the UN police.

The incident left people confused and afraid, and reluctant to take to the streets. “The problems of this society are more complicated than the average citizen can grasp”, says Dukagjin Gorani, a social analyst.

Augustin Palokaj, a political analyst in Brussels for Kosovo’s main daily, Koha Ditore, also observes a change. “There was a moment at the end of spring when everyone here [in Brussels] was expecting more and more protests but it did not happen,” he notes.

He found Kosovars reluctant to make waves, however. “When I last went back to Kosovo this summer, I asked friends, relatives and acquaintances whether they felt like protesting and everyone said ‘Yes’ but no one is actually willing to take the first step,” Palokaj adds.

Salih Morina, head of the government’s youth department, admits there is a worrying climate of passivity among the territory’s youth, which he links to the stalled status process. “I think that everything is connected with this,” he says, and “after the status settlement, I expect investments in Kosovo, and that various agencies from Europe, the world and the United States will bring more opportunities for young people.”

Arnoud Appriou, the European Commission’s democratisation and civil society desk officer in Kosovo, also cites a wider feeling of political helplessness. “The existence of Kosovo within Yugoslavia has made the population apathetic,” he says. ‘They think, ‘Well, we are here in Kosovo and somewhere else they are deciding our future’.”

Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, head of the Commission’s Kosovo Issues Unit in Brussels, acknowledges it is difficult for young people to see beyond final status, but her message to them is clear: No one is going to agitate on your behalf. “If we keep coming there with ready-made formulas, we will only perpetuate this apathy,” she explains, adding: “People in Kosovo should start learning that they need to articulate their pressure and lobby the parliament.”

Her advice is to “put pressure on your politicians, make sure you go back to school, and make sure you create parent associations at schools that will ask the headmasters about the quality of the education children are getting.”

These kinds of “civil society movements have to start happening,” she says, adding that “young people have a very important role” in this regard.

“The opposite of apathy does not mean demonstrations on the streets - it means a strong civil society, advocating ideas and projects,” Appriou agrees.

But there is not much sign of this strong and articulate “civil society” emerging at present in Kosovo. “We are ten years behind the rest of the region in civil activism,” says Luan Shllaku. “We need think-tanks, which reach policymakers and stronger advocacy groups that articulate society’s needs,” he says.

Drop out or find God

Much of the energy of the country’s frustrated youth seems to find an outlet in crime, or drugs. “The average age of those who engage in criminal offences from petty to heavy crimes as well as drug abuse is 18 to 24,” says Veton Elshani, spokesperson of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS. “Even kids younger than 18 are significantly involved in crimes ranging from theft to murder”, he adds.

Abuse of marijuana, Elshani says, has risen fast in recent years. “We are facing tremendous abuse of this drug. It’s very widespread”, he says.

Statistics produced by the World Health Organisation in 2001 support this, showing higher rates of drug abuse among Kosovo’s youth than in Western Europe, while local health workers back this up with daily anecdotes.

Other young Kosovars find an outlet for their frustrations in hard-line religion. “If it were not for Islam, I would go away from Kosovo right now,” says Armend, returning from Friday prayers at a local mosque. A photography enthusiast, he insists that “life has become untenable” in Pristina, where not being part of the “fun” is frowned upon. “You don’t drink?” he asks, rhetorically, mimicking those whom he sees as part of a decaying society. “This society is withering. It looks like someone is doing it on purpose”.

Since the war, Islam has grown in importance in Kosovo, especially among young people. A revival began a few years ago, when Arab organisations brought in food and clothes in the wake of the 1999 conflict, and granted scholarships to Far Eastern or Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. While most young people still lead a secular lifestyle, the number of devout Muslims has seen a marked increase. More girls are wearing headscarves, and young men can be seen in short trousers and long beards.

A 2005 study by KIPRED, Political Islam among Albanians, warned of the danger of religious radicalisation in Kosovo. “More and more young men and women are turning religion into a passion,” it said, with ambitions to take the tenets of their faith out of the spiritual realm and into the political.

Ferid Agani, a psychiatrist and member of parliament, representing the Islamic-oriented Justice Party, is less alarmed: “The fact that more young people have become more religious after the war speaks of the need that they have for psychological stability.”

“The stakes for religious radicalisation are as present as is the possibility for radicalisation for political or other social reasons,” he says.

Just let me out of here

For most youngsters the solution is neither crime, nor drugs nor religion, but emigration. “I finally made it - my day is coming. Farewell to this misery,” hums Jeton, a 24-year-old from Pristina who is finally making it to Canada, after arranging to marry a girl he has never had any serious intention to live with.

Stories, plans and strategies about moving abroad abound in Kosovo’s cafés: Alban, 26, from Prizren, plans to join his girlfriend in Germany. The papers are ready and he’s all set to start a “new life”, he says.

Yll, 23, from Pristina, has been trying to “get lost” for four years now, he says. His options have ranged from France, which he claims “is accepting white immigrants more than ever”, Belgium, Switzerland, where an arranged “romance” was awaiting him and the United States. Recently, he has even begun talking of leaving via Iraq.

“There is big money in exchange for the nightmares there,” he claims. “If you make more than 40,000 dollars for one year, it is worth risking your life. After that I could get lost properly”.

Psychologist Aliriza Arenliu says Kosovars have a great deal of affection for their homeland. But “opposing this sentiment, there is a great deal of frustration and hopelessness about the living standards and lack of opportunities”.

Arenliu adds: “The fact that half of the young population wishes to migrate speaks a great deal about what choices are left for them.”

Sociologist Shemsi Krasniqi says final status, once again, is the root of all malaise. “The average Kosovo citizen finds it difficult to reflect on the present”, he maintains. “The past is a bitter memory, today is non-existent, while the future is vague or only hoped-for,” he says.

Whether anything can stem the flight of the young and most talented from Kosovo remains unclear. Rainer Munz in Vienna has two scenarios in mind when it comes to Kosovo. But he is not willing to bet on which one will prevail.

“The positive scenario is that Kosovo sooner or later becomes independent, is recognised by some European countries and the US, the investment climate changes and there is a take-off of the economy.”

He adds: “Additional support would then come from remittances that would not be consumed but invested. You work for a cleaning company in Germany; you become head of a cleaning company in Pristina. You work as an accountant for a Swiss bank; you become head of an accountancy firm in Pristina.” Alternatively, according to Munz, “the economy does not take off, Kosovo becomes permanently dependant on foreign aid and remittances and all the money is consumed and not invested.”

“If the latter scenario wins out, you would see more and more people emigrating,” he concludes.

Fellow Bio

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Sokol Ferizi

Sokol Ferizi from Pristina, Kosovo, is a young journalist working for the Lajm daily newspaper and as moderator of the leading internet debate list in Kosovo, Prishtina Team