On a hot evening in June, Pristina’s main promenade, Mother Teresa Boulevard, has the relaxed, animated atmosphere of a holiday hotspot. Restaurant and bar terraces lining the walkway are full of young people, tanned and dressed in colourful clothes, chatting loudly while sipping local beer or raki. The rest of the city is quiet and peaceful.
Having declared independence in 2008, Kosovo is Europe’s youngest country, eager to become part of the international community. It is now a self-governing nation recognised by 91 countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States.
The memory of the 1998-99 war still lingers, but the Kosovars are keen to move on. It is easy to go about one’s business in Pristina speaking English and people are friendly, taxi drivers and government officials alike.
Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, with an average age of 26, and a new generation that grew up looking towards Western Europe and America. Working on a laptop in a small café, I blend in well – there are three other people doing the same, and they are not tourists. While to my foreign eye the young people on the streets of Pristina are fresh and relaxed, I am told there is a lot of tension and frustration beneath the surface. The unemployment rate in Kosovo is about 47% and young people are hardest hit, with as many as three out of four unable to find work.
“There are two problems that young people have in Kosovo,” a bright young political adviser tells me. “There is the lack of self-confidence, borne from years of being told that we need mentoring, need help. There is also a sense of self-importance, which came about from growing up watching ourselves on CNN.”
Because of this, she says, many young people find themselves in a limbo, not sure what to do. Many university graduates hope to emigrate, causing politicians to fear a brain drain. This is particularly problematic as Kosovo is about to enter a new chapter – the international oversight is to end in September – and it needs to rear future leaders. The Kosovars I meet are careful not to anticipate too much though, as Serbia continues to claim sovereignty over Kosovo’s territory and objects to its presence in international gatherings. I ask a local journalist what he thinks will change after September. He shrugs and says nothing. There is a hint of a cynical smile on his face.
As I head from Pristina towards the airport, my eyes are drawn to the large, unfinished homes dotting the grassy hills. Most have unpainted façades and some are surrounded by stacks of building materials. They are inhabited, however, and look as though they have been like that for a while. I am told some people leave their houses unpainted in order to pay lower property taxes. For those homes, the transitory phase has become their permanent state.