Kosovo: The Pros And Cons Of Being Europe's Newest Country

Jun 26, 2015
Originally published on June 26, 2015 7:35 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to spend some time now focusing on people who are restless for opportunity and searching for a better life, and we begin in Kosovo. It's the newest country in Europe, just 7 years old. The United States and its allies invested a lot in Kosovo's independence from Serbia, including a military campaign in 1999. Now Kosovo is experiencing growing pains and a feeling of abandonment by the international community. NPR's Ari Shapiro visited the country.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. More than half the people here are under age 25, and more than half of them don't have jobs. Last winter, frustrated Kosovars started to pour out of the country by the tens of thousands. The government released public service announcements urging people not to give up on their young nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "Leaving is not a solution," the video says, "it's dangerous, and you'll be forced to return." The message concludes, "your future is in your state."

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: I'm at a smoky cafe near the bus station in a dusty town called Gjilan in eastern Kosovo. A 23-year-old named Valdrin Rashiti meets me here. He left for Germany in December. Now he's back and jobless.

VALDRIN RASHITI: (Through interpreter) Everyone became desperate, disappointed with this country. And you work for two or three months; they don't pay you.

SHAPIRO: There's not one person you went to school with who today is a teacher or a home builder or a medical worker or anything that gives them a good job and a good sense of purpose?

RASHITI: (Through interpreter) No, I don't know anyone. My first cousin, he has two degrees. But he hasn't been able to find a job yet.

SHAPIRO: Bekim Collaku hears these kinds of stories all the time. He's Kosovo's minister for European integration. And he believes part of the problem is that his country is excluded from international organizations like the U.N., the European Union and NATO.

BEKIM COLLAKU: Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans that does not enjoy visa-free travel within Europe. And this is a paradox because 20 years ago, you were able to travel visa-free anywhere in the world. Can you imagine now, this feeling of isolation makes them feel much more disappointed? And our people do not want to feel isolated.

GREENE: The desire to escape Kosovo is common, but it's not universal.

VALON SOPI: I love the benefits of here.

GREENE: Valon Sopi has the hustle and drive of an American entrepreneur. He escaped war in Kosovo to attend high school and college in the United States. Then he came back to his homeland, where he now runs a group of web companies. We met in the capital, Pristina, a city that gleams with buildings funded by international investment opposite concrete hulks left over from communist times. Sopi fits right in here.

SOPI: I mean, we're trying to do pretty much what any other young entrepreneur does anywhere else in the world, you know? We're trying to build a business that serves a purpose, hires people, increases profits. And then if that helps the country, then that's great, you know? But that's - that's not our goal.

SHAPIRO: Since his company is online, he can avoid the corruption and the complicated international boundaries that make it tough for other entrepreneurs to set up shop here. Sopi compares Kosovo to an aimless teenager searching for an identity.

SOPI: We don't know where we're going. Are we sort of an agricultural country? Are we a startup nation - you know? - 'cause we're small.

SHAPIRO: But he says that can be an advantage too, a small, new country can be nimble. If citizens can reclaim their sense of purpose, if the government can eliminate corruption and create more jobs, if the international community can get behind the new kid on the block, then he believes Kosovo could become something great. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Pristina, Kosovo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.