Kosovo is a country on the mend after the 1999 war. But high unemployment and widespread poverty have spurred many Kosovars to leave. Switzerland is one of the countries trying to help turn the job market around. Can it work?
At first sight, it’s not clear why the Swiss are still so worried about Kosovo. Stepping out of Pristina’s modern international airport, you see rolling green hills and a stream of taxis waiting to whisk you away along modern highways.
The country is at peace and there are few signs of the destruction that took place in 1999, during the war between ethnic Serbs and Albanian Kosovars. Pockmarked roads and charred and mortar blasted buildings are a thing of the past. Minarets have been restored, and tourism is a major objective.
Apart from western Kosovo, some of Kosovo’s other tourist destinations are also flourishing. The capital, Pristina, is developing a reputation for its nightlife and jazz scene. The historic city of Prizren is also proving popular among travellers. National Geographic magazine recently described Kosovo as ‘one of Europe’s most exciting – and economical – adventure travel destinations.’ This image is set to be reinforced if financial backing is secured for a project to turn the crumbling ski village of Brezovica in the northeastern Sar mountains into one of the largest mountain resorts in the Balkans.
Much of the infrastructure has been repaired, but the economy has not, and 30% of the country is out of work. Unemployment is particularly acute among women and people aged 15-24. Many Kosovars have already fled, looking for a better life in the west. Kosovo nationals made up 40% of illegal border crossings into Europe in 2014. The challenge is to encourage young people to stick around to make Kosovo work.
The Swiss believe the way forward is to help create sustainable jobs. Switzerland is the third largest bilateral donor in Kosovo, contributing CHF88 million ($90 million) between 2013-2016. Some of the money is channelled through the independent foundation Swisscontact, with its Promoting Private Sector Employment project (PPSE).
One of the sectors showing great promise is tourism, but the branch needs to become more organised. So Swisscontact set up a tourism board in mountainous western Kosovo called OMD, grouping businesses that offer hiking and climbing trips and promote ethnic Albanian culture. These are already enjoying some success, as swissinfo.ch found out.
At the moment, there are still drawbacks to travelling around western Kosovo. The public transport system is poorly developed in remote mountain areas, roads are often little more than dirt tracks and there are few signposts to places of interest. Well-visited tourist attractions like the White Drin waterfall near Peja are strewn with litter.
Like the tourism industry, the wood sector is one sector of the economy that shows great growth potential. Over the past decade, a number of manufacturing companies have doubled in size and the consolidation is continuing. The industry says their products are 20% cheaper than similar products from western Europe, because of lower production costs.
But attempts to increase exports are hampered by limited access to markets. Visiting European trade fairs is prohibitively expensive for them, and visa restrictions make travelling difficult. Swisscontact recently helped send three Kosovar companies to the 2016 Swissbau trade fair in Basel. Kosovar company bosses talked swissinfo.ch through some of the challenges they face.
Foreign investment remains low in Kosovo due to the weak rule of law. The country performs poorly in Transparency International’s corruption index, coming 103 out of 168 countries measured (2015 figures). It is lagging far behind its nearest neighbours, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Edona Kurtolli at Swisscontact’s office in Pristina says: “It is starting to clean itself up a little, but it’s evident that without doing a major cleanse altogether, development is not going to happen just like that in the blink of an eye.”
This year, a Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Kosovo entered into force, which will support the reform process and give Kosovo a chance to move closer to Europe. However, Pristina-based economic analyst, Lumir Abdixhiku, says the pace of development remains slow. “It will take Kosovo three decades at this rhythm to catch up with Croatia; roughly six decades to reach an average European country.”
There are many obstacles to overcome in the fight against unemployment. Patrick Etienne, director of the Swiss Cooperation Office in Pristina, says: “Many people are excluded from economic opportunities through nepotism, ethnic-based discrimination, and gender-biased attitudes.”
According to the World Bank country snapshot report of 2015, many Kosovo firms feel that an inadequately educated workforce is a “major constraint” to their business. The World Bank concludes that the access to and quality of formal education need to be improved.
Despite Kosovo only declaring its independence in 2008, Edona Kurtolli from Swisscontact is convinced that it will succeed. “I believe in our population, especially young people, and I believe things will get better very soon.”
Poverty and survival
According to the UN Development Program, nearly 30% percent of the Kosovar population of 1.8 million is considered poor. Many try to emigrate. Over the past three years, the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) has handled 1,669 asylum requests from Kosovars. Pristina-based economic analyst, Lumir Abdixhiku, says Kosovo is being propped up by foreign aid and funds from expat Kosovars amounting to about CHF758 million per year. The 180,000 Kosovars living in Switzerland are among those keeping the Balkan state afloat. Contrary to expectations, expat contributions are increasing rather than diminishing.