Balkan strays

Robert Wilton describes the unique energy of Prishtina, a capital city making it up as it goes along

Kosovo has two seasons: mud, rich with the smoke of the wood and brown coal used for heating; and dust, scented with whichever fruit is in season for a week or two and being sold at the roadside. Today, temperatures in the high 30s are making Prishtina’s main square an oven. So sociability is squeezed into two daily intervals. In the mornings, the cafés are typically dominated by men, nursing a single coffee for an hour and grumbling about politics and how hard it is to get a job, while their wives are elsewhere juggling a day job and all the housework. In the evenings, there’s the general promenade up and down the pedestrian street, the cafés all twinkly lights and cheap cocktails and scruffy boys and over- (yet also under-) dressed girls.

Prishtina is one of the last outposts of European colonialism

For much of the dusty day Prishtina is lethargic. The rhythms of the offices have slowed, and the women there – like their men in the cafés – are thinking of a weekend dash to the Albanian coast, a few days in Montenegro, or a package week in Turkey. Intermittently, a high-performance car shrieks in the street, or preens in the prime spot outside the fanciest hotel. Kosovo’s diaspora is home for the summer, expecting homage and hospitality in return for their admirable success and generous remittances, looking for a bride, showing off the dream cars and oafishness they have acquired in western Europe. Intrepid backpackers trudge over-rucksacked through the heat, surprised by the legendary yet real hospitality, by the absence of any hint of conflict, by the lack of consistency between map and street name. Instinctive entrepreneurialism makes the city fertile ground for Airbnbs and hostels. The micromarket owner is slumped on a plastic stool in his doorway, more hopeful of a breeze than a customer. The stray dogs are parched and raddled: hunting affection in packs in the pedestrian precinct; beached and panting in the shade of the kerbside hedges; waking startled at 4am to howl their responses to the Muezzin.

It’s a city trying on different costumes of grandeur and culture

The world has more pressing things to think about than Kosovo – which is usually good news for Kosovo. But the country recently made a brief return to the European headlines. Although Kosovo’s Serb minority (perhaps five per cent of the population) mostly live elsewhere in the country, there’s a relative concentration in four northern municipalities. Serbs boycotted recent local elections there, producing results that were legitimate but daft. (Kosovo doesn’t love the fact that the Serbian paramilitaries, the mass-rapists, the war criminals of 1999 are still walking free in Serbia, but as long as they’re not in Kosovo people are content enough. Although constitutional provisions guaranteeing minority rights aren’t exactly implemented gleefully, they are by and large implemented. But Belgrade punishes Kosovo Serbs who engage too obviously with the Kosovo institutions – everything from discrimination against their families to car bombs.) Given the chance of making a bit of low-key progress, some of the new non-Serb mayors decided instead to prove a point by taking control of institutional premises; they were met with Serb protests, which turned violent thanks to Belgrade’s infiltrated hardliners, and international police were injured.

Busy city centre. ARBENLLAPASHTICA CC BY-SA 3.0
Cafe culture
The National Library and its avant-garde architecture

Kosovo was not surprised that the international community, faced with this spurt of Kosovo official idiocy and Serbian official criminality, did nothing against the latter. It is understood that Serbia is a far more important prospect for the EU than Kosovo; Kosovo is realising that its sincere commitment to the EU and adoration of the US is a much less artful diplomatic approach than Serbia’s having its EU membership-prospects cake while eating its Russian arms and political backing.

The war in Ukraine is final proof, were it needed, of Vladimir Putin’s willingness to foster and exploit pockets of tension in Europe (for the east of Ukraine, see also Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and those tiny municipalities in the north of Kosovo). The EU had the chance of taking a more robust diplomatic stance in the Balkans, solidifying Kosovo’s place in Europe and thereby giving the most effective demonstration to Putin’s satellites that they’re pursuing a dead end policy. Instead, the EU has become even more craven towards Belgrade, in the desperate hope that this will finally tempt Serbia off the fence on the European side. This appeasement – in the face of the arms deals, the energy deals, the pro-Putin marches and media, the Ukraine war crimes denial – has had the opposite effect, naturally: Serbia sees very clearly that it never needs to choose. With all of this, Kosovo is wearily familiar.

What was surprising was the spitefulness of the European and American diplomatic reaction against Prishtina: participation in a military exercise cancelled; development partnership frozen; dark threats of further sanctions; American statements in a language that, if used by any other ambassador in any other country, would likely have had the diplomat on the first flight home and probably paying their own fare. No doubt there was justified frustration at the effects of a moment of Kosovan recklessness. But there’s also the strong impression that the internationals were simply startled by Kosovo politicians proving less obedient than expected.

The ugly truth of Prishtina – seen from the high ground to the west of the city where most of the embassies have always been – is that it’s one of the last outposts of European colonialism; or of a colonialism that continues to evolve, in the world of international aid and peacebuilding. Foreign ambassadors, middle-rank at home, are celebrities and headline-makers in Prishtina: a prime minister who puts up with being first-named makes a foreign diplomat feel quite a swell; and an office of well-turned-out secretaries with old-style respect for male bosses seems charming, if you’ve just escaped the more austere modern conventions of a western capital. The great powers expect to dictate the country’s politics, and secure whatever infrastructure deals they fancy. Foreign officials and police have disproportionate influence and purchasing power, and relative impunity. All terribly congenial for the foreigners – as long as the natives do what they’re told.

One of the few remaining examples of Ottoman architecture. ADVENTUROUS-TRAVELS.COM

Prishtina is a created capital city, born of accidents of railway and administrative geography now redundant. In just twenty years it has accumulated all the institutions and responsibilities and relative population density of a European capital, without the necessary infrastructure or the complacent blandness of spirit. It’s a city trying on different costumes of grandeur and culture; it’s a city making it up as it goes along. Just a few weeks of summer and just a hundred yards of main square are seeing a perpetual skirmish for space and audibility between an open-air opera festival, a mini-football tournament, a gastronomy’n’music fair, an exhibition of stunt basketball, endless traditional craft and produce stalls and this year’s Pride Parade – a natural fit given the city’s any-excuse-for-a-party approach to infrastructure management. It’s high season for the renters-out of scaffold towers and amps, and the square always has a couple of guys swarming over a makeshift stage to get it up or down in record time, while turning very pink in the sun. The city of Peja’s recent Anibar animation festival (theme “Love”, with a strong pro-LGBT+ angle), and the city of Prizren’s imminent Dokufest documentary festival, attract connoisseurs of beanbags and avant-garde culture and warm-sociable-evenings-under-the-stars from across Europe.

These exuberances – along with the individual creativities of the call-centre entrepreneur, the animator, the busker, the bar-owner and the person who just wants to enjoy themselves – seem unaffected by the political games. This surprises the foreign visitors. They are well-read in the Ancestral Hatreds and are forever telling the peoples of the region to stop making everything about ethnic difference and then imposing constitutional arrangements in which everything is determined by ethnic difference; they have for centuries imported their imperial policies and identity theories to this region, and drawn lines on maps to suit themselves, and then invited the locals to play some new diplomatic game to validate it all. For the foreigners, Balkan politics is everything and all-absorbing, and they can’t understand why so many of the Balkan people just shrug.

Decades of oppression, and then horror, and then international fiddling have taught that existence is sometimes short, and often fragile, and generally contingent. Prishtina has the dawn-and-dusk energy of life lived in the gaps between politics and diplomacy; life lived in spite of it all.

Robert Wilton has spent most of the past twenty years in the Balkans. He is co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity. Recent books include “No Man’s Lands: eight extraordinary women in Balkan history” with Elizabeth Gowing, “Glimmer of Hope, Glimmer of Flame”, translated from the Albanian, and a forthcoming novel of colonialism, “The Sultan’s Emu”

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