In Britain, bright young things do internships and occupy things, complaining that the world is against them. In Kosovo they become deputy foreign minister. Okay, that might be stretching it a bit, but when I first met Petrit Selimi my first reaction was, “Damn, what have I done with my life?” Selimi, who is in his early thirties, is a whirlwind of dynamism and debt crisis wisdom, and the hope of Europe’s newest country (although Spain and Slovakia might not agree with me on that last point).
He has the unenviable task of fashioning a viable country out of what was a chunk of Yugoslavia, then Serbia. It has also been a United Nations protectorate, before that a war zone, and before that—going a long way back, but for Serbia and Kosovo this bit matters—it was the cradle of Serbian civilisation, and the site where the Turks defeated of a Serbian-led coalition in 1389.
On my first visit, the Field of Blackbirds, as the battlefield is known, seemed to me a rather unremarkable field of ploughed mud and plastic bags, rustling about in the lignite-laced wind. But then if you were a Kosovar, one of the nearly 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority, why would you go all National Trust on a site that lies at the heart of many of your recent problems?
Those problems persist. The UN compound still dominates, just where I remember it, and if you throw a crumpled-up plastic bag in any central street you have a 50/50 chance of hitting a chunky white NGO jeep. The main road to the north is blocked at the point where the population becomes majority ethnic Serb, and the unemployment rate would make an Occupy protester choke on their roll-up. There is optimism, but when that comes in the shape of better links to one of Europe’s most troubled countries, Albania, you know there is work to be done.
Even walking in the streets of Pristina (between the excellent bars) can be dangerous, with the murder of crows in each tree splattering pavement and pedestrians alike with crap with the abandon of a winged gang of Jackson Pollocks. Market traders, surrounded by national football shirts (not recognised by Uefa), heaps of supersized vegetables and parts of car engines, mutter about the economy and nervously refuse further comment. University students bank on growing recognition to carve out the humble lives that their parents hoped for them.
But gloom is not my point. It would be a waste of breath to run through the multitude of problems facing Selimi and his young country, or to break out the bunting and claim that Kosovo is on an inexorable upward trend. As the rest of Europe splutters and the euro threatens to destroy all before it, things look bad for poor little Kosovo. But history, and Selimi, is on their side.
Kosovo has character. It suffered domination by the Ottomans and by the Serbs. Try driving from Austria-lite Slovenia down through the Balkan peaks to little Kosovo, using up pages of your passport in stamps. It’s a story of economic regression that ends up in Yugoslavia’s poorest chunk. The people here are used to having to look after themselves, of taking responsibility and doing it the hard way. There never was any suckling on the teat of big government in Prizren, Pecs and Pristina. Remittances come from legions of waiters and exiles in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (usually refugees from the war in 1999), and people get their hands dirty in looking for that better life that doesn’t come cheap. Some of the super-talented and lucky ones become deputy foreign minister. Others rise to the top through insalubrious connections with men in square cut black leather jackets. Somewhere, I imagine, somebody is growing rich after discovering the secret of growing plastic bags from seed in some of the grey, muddy fields of the central plain.
Like many others in the eastern half of Europe, Kosovans know that a good life requires hard work. That’s something that many, from Greece to Italy to the looted shops of Tottenham, seem to have forgotten. If an economic crisis is good for anything, it is for reminding us that the lazy consumption of the past might not work in the future, and that if you think you are worth more than a Vietnamese worker then please show us why. If Kosovo’s troubles are good for anything, it is in giving us the Selimis of this world. As PJ O’Rourke said after a visit to communist Poland, where he was bowled over by his young translator’s talent, if we open the doors to this lot they’ll nick our jobs. And justifiably so.
Nicholas Walton is the communications director of the European Council on Foreign Relations