On November 3rd 2013, the young nation of Kosovo witnessed an election that will help shape growing relationships with the rest of Europe; as well as potentially paving the way for Serbia's entry into the EU. However, just 14 years ago the country was ravaged by the horrific Kosovo War, and tensions between the nation's Albanian and Serbian minorities still run very high - all of which combined to make this election a truly explosive event.
My arrival in the middle of this turmoil came by complete accident. I had been holidaying in neighbouring Macedonia, and a trip to the Kosovar capital of Pristina had simply struck me as an interesting detour. Well, I got more than I bargained for.
A Tourist in Kosovo
My first impressions of Kosovo – arriving by bus into the capital city of Pristina – were chaotic. For starters, the language completely threw me. Albanian is the most broadly spoken tongue here, with roughly 92% of the population claiming Albanian descent. It's an odd language though, bearing little similarity to the Slavic languages of neighbouring Serbia or Macedonia.
Back in Macedonia, I had been able to communicate using my moderate grasp of Bulgarian. Local friends had warned me though, not to try the same approach in Kosovo: it could all-too-easily be mistaken for the Serbian language, a mistake which probably wouldn’t earn me any friends amongst the Kosovo Albanian majority.
From the busy bus station in Pristina, I flagged down a taxi – checking the price before getting in.
"Five Euros," the driver told me in heavily accented English. Almost certainly too much, I knew, but I was eager to get to my hostel. Soon we were swerving wildly in and out of the traffic along Pristina's main thoroughfare. At one point the car veered up onto the pavement, speeding forward in a sudden burst as the driver attempted to shove his way back in front of the next car.
The short journey filled me with a sensation of impending doom and later that evening – after I had checked into my hostel, and headed out for a stroll – I found the rest of the city to be much the same. It was a Friday night, and a political rally had brought crowds of supporters out in force. Everywhere I looked there were bodies, car horns, loud music and chants. The black and red flag of Albania flew from balconies, towers and car bonnets, while every available wall had been plastered with the face of some mayoral candidate or other.
Later that night, I sat back at the hostel drinking beers with some of the locals. Albanian, American, British, Dutch and Italian, they were all involved in various NGOs and charity projects, or reporting on the elections in a journalistic capacity. One writer was chasing a story about villagers selling their votes for €30 a piece; another was investigating stories of unsolved organ thefts during the war.
"We don't see many tourists," someone was saying, "people don’t generally come to Kosovo without a reason."
As the conversation rallied on through the finer points of the election campaign, I realised quite how out of my depth I had become. I had arrived with no idea what was going on in the country, while everyone else around me was geared up for an event that could shape the future of the nation. If I was going to get the most out of this experience, I knew I had some serious reading to do.
The Election Debate
The 2013 mayoral elections in Kosovo mark a significant turning point in the nation's short history. After the Kosovo War came to an end in 1999, the 'Kosovo Liberation Army' (KLA) took charge of the country, under the administration of the UN. It wasn't until 2008 that Kosovo would declare national independence from Serbia, however; at which point the KLA evolved from a military organisation to a political party, rebranding itself the 'Kosovo Democratic Party' (PDK).
Serbia is just one of a long list of countries which still refuses to accept Kosovo's independence... along with Spain, Romania, Greece, Russia and others. In this election however, as Kosovo's population votes for local leaders and city mayors, Serbian minorities in Kosovo are being urged to vote - with orders coming directly from Belgrade.
This implicit recognition of an independent governmental process in Kosovo is a groundbreaking move on behalf of Serbia, but a necessary one if they are to be considered for EU membership. However, while the EU might prefer full cooperation from Serbia in terms of unconditional recognition of Kosovo, they’re not in a great place to press the point. After all, with so many EU nations yet to add their blessings, as a whole, the EU itself could not be said to support this fledgling nation.
Some ethnic Serbians – particularly around the northern town of Mitrovica, where roughly one third of Kosovo Serbs are located – have reported great pressure to vote; some locals have even told news sources that they risk losing their jobs if they don't. Nevertheless, other Serb factions are aggressively pushing for a boycott of the votes.
This year there were no less than eight major parties vying for control in Kosovo. While the PDK has been in charge of the country since the end of the Kosovo War, the 'Democratic League of Kosovo' (LDK) holds the mayoral seat in the capital.
Challengers in this year’s election included the pro-European 'Alliance for the Future of Kosovo' (AAK), the left-wing nationalist 'Vetevendosje' (VV) party, the liberal 'New Kosovo Alliance' (AKR), the conservative 'Ibrahim Rugova's List' (LIR), all-out Albanian nationalism promoted by the 'Movement for Unification' (LB) and the religiously motivated 'Justice Party' (PD).
A number of other, smaller parties also put their names into the hat; including amongst them Serbian, Bosniak, Ashkali, Egyptian and Turkish nationalist groups representing minority populations of Kosovo.
While many were hedging their bets for an LDK win, a swing towards Vetevendosje (VV) and their left-wing, directly democratic approach seems to be a popular choice amongst a new generation of voters. Many young Kosovars are eager for change, and a move away from the military mentality of former parties.
However, VV's Albanian nationalist leanings could spell trouble for ethnic Serbs; many of whom still reject the very concept of an independent governmental process in Kosovo. While a large proportion of Kosovo Serbs live in the divided northern city of Mitrovica, there still remain Serbian enclaves, isolated village communities scattered throughout the mountains of Kosovo. Serbia's deputy prime minister visited Kosovo on the Friday before the election, conducting rallies in which he urged Serbian minorities to head for the polling booths. However, amongst Kosovo's Serbs there seems to be a growing feeling of having been abandoned by Belgrade.
Meanwhile, VV's talk of one day reuniting populations in Kosovo and Albania - to form one "Great Albania" - has raised concern in some camps. Macedonia's population is composed 25% of Albanians, while Albanian communities also exist in Montenegro, Serbia and Greece. If all those remote communities were inspired to join together into one extended Albanian nation, spurred on by the example of Kosovo, it could potentially lead to another war in the Balkans.
I was beginning to learn just how important the outcome of this election would be.
I had been shell-shocked on first arrival in Pristina. Friday night was a fanfare of political rallies, flag waving and rousing messages broadcast from speeding cars. Saturday, on the other hand, felt like the calm before the storm; and as I explored on foot, the city seemed deceptively subdued.
Kosovo has sometimes been alluded to as the "51st State"; a reference to America's role in ending the Kosovo War, and the deep love that many Albanians have for the US as a result. I walked down Bulevardi Bill Klinton, to find a large bronze statue of the president himself. Just off George Bush Street I strolled through the university campus, and stopped to admire the National Library of Kosovo. This vast, nebulous building was constructed in 1982, coated in linked steel pieces that give it the appearance of a chain mail coat. It was recently voted one of the ugliest buildings in the world (unfairly, in my opinion).
Near the library, in the middle of a city park stands an unfinished Serbian orthodox church. Construction was abandoned with the outbreak of war however, and now just an incomplete shell remains. I took a look inside, through the only entrance that wasn’t sealed with barbed wire. The majestic dome was bare and cracking, while the altar space had been used – recently – as a public toilet.
Something about the place felt almost memorial; a decaying epitaph to an Albanian victory in Kosovo.
Crossing back over George Bush Street I headed down towards the city’s 'Newborn' monument. The English word is spelled out in large capital characters, a declaration of independence unveiled in February 2008. Later, to celebrate the nation's fifth anniversary, the monument was decorated with the flags of nations who recognised the independence of Kosovo. Several squares remain unpainted, simply labelled: "Spain...", "Greece...", and so on. The effect is playful yet patient, optimistic without being confrontational.
In the heart of Pristina a pedestrianised boulevard runs into Mother Teresa Square – a clean, metropolitan space where children laugh and play amongst coloured fountains. Coffee shops line either side, along with stalls selling pancakes or roasted chestnuts.
I took some time here to unwind, to enjoy a strong coffee and watch the world go by. The square was filled with noise and movement, shouted conversations and people running about. What I had taken for civil unrest the night before, I was beginning to recognise as a different pace of life; hot-blooded Albanian culture with all its colour and commotion. It was hard to imagine that just 14 years ago this was the site of heavy military conflict, armed rebellion and attempted ethnic cleansing on a vast scale.
From Mother Teresa Square I headed north, walking for a while through the Old Town. Here the streets were filled with colourful bazaars, the traffic barely managing to fit between stalls laden with jackets and school bags, vegetables, perfumes and prayer beads. Pedestrians streamed in and around the tables, dodging cars, filling the air with noisy chatter. In every direction I looked, ornate minarets rose up above the rows of houses.
On the edge of the Old Town stands the Museum of Kosovo - I paid my €2, and took a look around the upstairs gallery. Most of the exhibits were in Albanian, but in between the fractured shell cases and rusted rifles hung newspaper covers, charting the events of 1998-99. "God Bless America and NATO," read one prominent headline.
Later in the day I stopped for a haircut. The barber was stood out front, dressed in a smart shirt and pressed trousers, a maroon sweater draped round his shoulders.
"Do you speak English?" I asked slowly as I approached the door.
"But of course!" the man replied, with only the faintest trace of an Albanian accent. As he worked, we talked about music (it turned out we were both big fans of Nick Cave), and, of course, the coming election. "My town is Prizren," he told me as he trimmed away. "I must go back there to vote. You should go there too – it’s the only place in Kosovo worth seeing."
"Five Euros for the haircut," he added. I was beginning to get the feeling that €5 was the standard price for most transactions here.
I spent the end of the evening drinking raki with the locals, at a simple-yet-stylish bar in the city centre. A blues band was playing on the wooden stage, as young people danced, mingled and drank. It could have been any bar, in any city in the world.
On Sunday 3rd November, polling booths were set up in in schools and colleges around the city of Pristina; many of them guarded by a detachment of armed police.
While the mood in the capital was civil, the same couldn't be said for other regions. Reports were coming in hourly, for example, of riots in Mitrovica. A local candidate had been assassinated on Friday, and now ethnic Serbs were taking to the streets, playing nationalist music and calling for a boycott. Ballot boxes were smashed by masked rioters, while voting stations were hit with tear gas.
By midday, around 11% of Kosovo's population had cast their vote. That figure had reached 30% by 2pm. Apparently the bulk of the foreign journalists in Pristina had gathered at the Grand Hotel, where the preliminary results were being monitored on a massive wall display.
Rather than join the herd, however, I headed out to the suburbs with a travel writer from England. We walked through the Old Town, past numerous polling booths before taking in the view of Pristina from a hill in the north of the city. A gang of young boys saw us coming, from their vantage point on the shell of a ruined building. When I took out my camera they pulled up their hoods, hiding their faces from the lens as if by instinct. Then one of them saw a pair of sunglasses poking out of my bag. I offered to take his portrait wearing them, and within moments I was being mobbed by willing candidates, pouting and pulling faces at the camera.
A long stretch of parkland leads from the northern tip of Pristina, winding between foothills, up into the forested mountains of Kosovo. Today the narrow space was filled with families, many of them brought into the city to cast their votes. We stopped for a coffee on the wooden veranda of a restaurant, shaded beneath autumn leaves in hues of red and gold and brown. It was a relief to snatch just a few moments of calm, a temporary change of pace... before returning to the inevitable chaos of the city.
The first announcement of preliminary results was due to come in at 9pm; but even before that, LDK supporters had taken to the streets to celebrate their anticipated victory. Cars sped down George Bush street, horns blaring, LDK banners and flags streaming from windows. On Bill Clinton Boulevard I was overtaken by a tractor - painted in the Albanian colours of black and red, no less than six young LDK supporters riding up top.
A few of us stopped at a bar in the centre, an oasis amidst the storm, where a political rally had been held earlier in the day. Parked on the street outside was a brand new Porsche decorated with the emblem of the 'Strong Party,' or Partia e Fortë. This satirical, grass-roots political organisation is famous for quotes such as:
"The problem is not why 40% are unemployed; it is why the [remaining] 60% still have to work."
Amongst their various proposed projects is a movement to decriminalise the growth and consumption of marijuana in Kosovo. Inside the bar party members mingled casually with young Kosovars, the atmosphere a welcome change from the chaos out on the streets.
We had heard reports about a press gathering in the Pristina Grand Hotel, and after finishing our drinks we decided to go and investigate. En route we passed a road block, police cars lined up to prevent traffic entering the city centre boulevards. A massive crowd had gathered beside the main road, cheering each flag that whizzed past. It was an intimidating scene at first; me, the foreigner with a camera, in the middle of a noisy, chanting crowd. I wasn't treated like an outsider though, but rather this felt inclusive, as if I too were invited to the party. Sure, things might have been quite different had I been waving a Serbian flag - but as an impartial observer on the scene, at no point did I feel in any way unwelcome.
We reached the hotel where the doorman was perfectly happy to show us to the elevators, gesturing for us to head on up to the top floor. It seems we overshot, however - perhaps we misunderstood 'top floor' for 'highest completed floor' - and we ended up in a bare concrete corridor on the sixteenth and final level.
Rather than head back down immediately though, we took the opportunity to have a little look around... finding an open door onto a balcony, high above Mother Teresa Square below. Just then the fireworks started, and we enjoyed the display from perhaps the best spot in the whole city.
[To see the show for yourself, check out my photo report on Kosovo Rooftops.]
Ultimately, the election came to an inconclusive end. The incumbent LDK candidate, Mayor Isa Mustafa, won locally - with 43% of the Pristina vote; pro-Albanian party Vetevendosje came second with 33%. According to the law in Kosovo however, a 10% lead is required before a party can be declared victorious... and so the 2013 mayoral election was put to a second round of voting, to be held on December 1st.
On Monday I sat with a Kosovo Albanian friend, drinking a beer and chatting about the inconclusive results.
"I just can't believe we've got to go through the whole thing again," he moaned.
And so it continues. LDK remain in control of the capital, while tensions in the north stay unresolved. The VV camp, meanwhile, seem confident that their party can triumph over LDK in round two. Meanwhile, efforts redouble to capture those missing votes in the towns, villages and mountain communities of Kosovo.
Newspaper stories about riot police and violent assaults in polling stations do nothing to give a sense of modern-day Kosovo, save for the few pockets of the country where race rivalry is still rife. In the city of Pristina, people crave recognition of their independence... but all in all, it's about as normal a city as you'll find anywhere in the Balkans.
In fact, with a reported 60% voting turnout nationwide, democracy almost seems to be working better here than it does in the UK.
If you're interested in finding out about more unrecognised countries, then you might want to take a look at this one: The Soviet Socialist Republic of Transnistria.