Europe & world

Balkans: Kosovo’s demographic time-bomb

11 April 2012
The Irish Times Dublin

An artwork by Kosovan Astrit Ismaili, 10 April 2010.
An artwork by Kosovan Astrit Ismaili, 10 April 2010.

The continent’s youngest state has the highest unemployment rate. With no chances to travel and few opportunities at home, is Kosovo's burgeoning youth generation ripe for revolt?

At all hours of the day, Pristina’s artists, writers and dreamers gather in the snug confines of Dit e Nat, a book-filled cafe whose name means Day and Night in Albanian. Among them is Astrit Ismaili, a 20-year-old conceptual artist recently returned from a six-month residency in New York. “I was lucky. I got an award to go to the US,” he says. “Most people in Kosovo never get the chance to leave, because of the difficulties getting visas. It’s sad that the talent and ambitions of youth here are much bigger than our reality allows.”

Ismaili’s work explores themes of identity and sexuality through the prism of a society still coming to terms with the aftermath of the war that helped birth Kosovo as an independent state. It can be provocative – one project involved Ismaili posing almost nude against the Pristina skyline – and he knows he is pushing boundaries in what remains a largely conservative place. “If you don’t have the opportunity to experience things outside Kosovo, it can be suffocating here.”

Suffocating is also a word used by an unemployed graduate who gives his name as Dren. Nursing a macchiato at a crowded cafe with a view of the iconic bright-yellow Newborn monument – unveiled when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 – Dren gestures around him. “Pristina is full of cafes like this . . . packed with young people like me with nothing else to do but drink coffee all day,” he says bitterly. “We have no work, no prospects and no way out. This is no country for young people.”

Kosovo is, however, a country of young people. Its two million inhabitants make up the youngest population in Europe: every second person is under 25. More than half of the ministers in Kosovo’s government are under 40. The country’s president, a former police commander named Atifete Jahjaga, was just 36 when she was elected last year. And, as officials like to stress when discussing the challenges faced by Kosovo, the state, which celebrated its fourth birthday in February, is the second-youngest in the world after South Sudan.

“You cannot find a single case in history where, within three or four years of independence, the major issues of development in a country were addressed,” says Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Edita Tahiri. “I would say to our young people, give us time.”

But some charge that the government, which paid Saatchi Saatchi about €5 million to come up with a glossy international advertising campaign trumpeting Kosovo’s “Young Europeans”, is not taking the youth bulge seriously enough. Two years ago, the Kosovo Stability Initiative, a Pristina-based think tank, published, in partnership with Unicef, a report that estimated youth unemployment at 73 per cent.

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