“We will get there one day; until then we are constantly surviving.”
-Liza Gashi, founder of Kosovo Diaspora
From April 8th to April 15th, five first-year students from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy students undertook a week-long study trip to Prishtina, the capital of Europe’s youngest country, Kosovo. This was done as part of the spring semester course, “Re-Building States: The Legitimacy of International Interventions in the Balkans”. The students are part of the Conflict Studies and Management specialization offered by the Willy Brandt School (WBS). The trip was organized by Dr. Siddharth Tripathi, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Erfurt, and Prof Dr. Solveig Richter, Junior Professor of Conflict Management at WBS. It was intended to provide exposure to and an on-ground perspective on a post-conflict society. Through multiple meetings and interactions with local, as well as international, stakeholders, we obtained an excellent first-hand view of the political, cultural, and administrative challenges faced by a community that declared independence only ten years ago.
Kosovo, once a part of Yugoslavia, has a long and rich history that has been dominated by Serbs, Albanians, and, for about 200 years, the Ottomans. These diverse cultures have had a lasting impact on modern society in Kosovo, including in religion, architecture, food, and, most importantly, identity. After the disintegration of the Yugoslav Republic, Kosovo became a part of Serbia. However, in the 1990s, Kosovo was highly marginalized by its parent nation, which served as a stark contrast to the special status it enjoyed as part of Yugoslavia, when it enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. The exclusion of Albanians from civil services and the slow, but certain, prejudice against them in the 1990s led the Kosovars to war with Serbia in 1998. This bloody war lasted for two years and ended with the help of NATO intervention, which drove the Serbs out of Kosovo. After a period of eight years of governance by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008. Many nations, however, including five EU member states, do not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. It is this struggle of the young nation in coming to terms with the dual challenges of self-governance and international recognition that we intended to study as part of this field trip.
On the trip, we met representatives from various organizations. We had meetings with Albin Kurti, the leader of Vetëvendosje!, the primary opposition party in the Kosovo Parliament, as well as representatives from think tanks, such as the Group of Legal and Political Studies and Democracy+, and international organizations, such as the EU, EULEX, GiZ, SIDA, and the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. Our perspective was also enriched by meeting with people from various local organizations, such as Germin, an organization looking to tap into the enormous potential of the Kosovar diaspora, and Saranda Ramaj, a journalist from the daily newspaper, Koha Ditore.
Although these meetings covered a range of topics, from governance to media censorship, rule of law, and more, there were a few common themes that cut across all of them, sometimes explicitly, sometimes subtly, and sometimes only revealing themselves in our reflections and discussions afterwards. Identity was one such aspect that struck out to me. It was fascinating to see that most Kosovars, in spite of having struggled for the independence of a new nation, still considered themselves first to be ethnically Albanian over being a part of any religion or country. Another theme that was prevalent across all meetings was the almost urgent desire of the nation to be a part of the EU and the frustration it felt at Serbia’s refusal to recognize it as an independent nation, which is seen as the primary factor impeding its membership. The third important trend that stood out was the realization by the Kosovars that governance in their country over the last ten years has been less than effective, and the subsequent eagerness of civil society in using technology and the best talent to bring about lasting reforms in the governance.
Apart from the meetings, the group also made a few visits around the country, visiting cities like Mitrovica, which is well known for its division of Albanians and Serbs on either side of a river, and Prizren, the cultural capital of Kosovo, characterized its fortress and buildings from the Ottoman times. Prishtina, the capital, is quite modernized, with elegant cafés and restaurants on every street and a large international presence. This is quite different from the environment in these other cities, where one gets a deeper sense of what the country went through and continues to go through. However, aside from the cultural tensions and strain present in society, it is worth mentioning the natural beauty that the Kosovar countryside holds. Rolling hills and picturesque valleys, with small hamlets in them, and cattle and horses roaming about in the fields provided quite an idyllic picture of the place. Friendly locals, who were more than eager to point you in the right direction, and even friendlier stray dogs, who considered it their duty to escort us as we trooped around the countryside, also enhanced our experience of rural Kosovo.
A few testimonials from my fellow students are provided below:
“I believe that my experience in Kosovo has been unforgettable. During our student trip, we visited different institutions and different people linked in different ways to the post-conflict situation, such as journalists, researchers, politicians, among others. But what I enjoyed the most about the trip was the warmth of its people, the delicious food, and of course the Machiatto.”
- Paula Germana, Peru
“I enjoyed the study trip in many ways. First, I appreciated the opportunity to experience different places of Kosovo with our own eyes and meet with many different international and local organisations to look at Kosovo from different angles. It was also helpful to hear how institutions apply the theories and concepts we are studying into their practical work. All the people we met in Kosovo are very friendly and welcoming and the food has always been amazing. I hope to come back one day!”
- Ngoc Yen Dong, Vietnam
“On this trip, we became familiar with many of the myriad challenges faced by this small country at the crossroads of international politics and regional tensions. The kindness and generosity of the people we met in Kosovo was astonishing, from the hostel staff to the guides, to the professionals we met with to the people we only met briefly and who nonetheless thanked us for visiting their country. It was fascinating to learn about their experiences and the obstacles facing this young country, and inspiring to see the work they are doing and the sacrifices they make to build the society they want to live in.”
- Sophia Tomany, United States of America
“Despite all its constraints, Kosovo is for me a unique and exceptional country, and the kindness of the Kosovar people symbolizes strength and survival. I think that Kosovo is a country that can offer integration, unity, cooperation, solidarity, and support for healthy development, and one that is seen to have overcome the adversity of war.”
- Daniella Tello, Colombia
All in all, it was an enriching and highly informative trip, and provided us with an important perspective required by students of conflict and peacebuilding. We all feel lucky to have been a part of this trip and to have interacted with the various actors and stakeholders in the country.