Initially a visit to Kosovo never figured in my Balkan plans. But as it happens, and especially as it happens in the Balkans, the route took on a life of its own. I was researching ways of getting from BiH to Macedonia (the only country I hadn’t yet visited in the Balkans). Gradually it became clear that the only route that made sense had to go through Kosovo. And suddenly I realised that I was simply obliged to stay in Pristina for a day and to see what it’s all about. What is Kosovo anyway?
Apart from the obvious – the war with Serbia – my only association with Kosovo was the presence of a legion of international workers, as well as various horror stories in the press about Kosovo mafia, going all the way to human organ trafficking.
But Pristina met me with tranquility and silence that immediately confounded my stereotypes. On a hot day the main Pristina pedestrian thoroughfare looks like any other broad and empty street anywhere in the world eaten by the scorching sun at a random midday:
A paradox: the main boulevard of a resolutely Muslim country bears the name of a Catholic nun. The favourite game of recent statehoods is fighting for the building blocks of identity. Malaysia fights Singapore and Indonesia for batik and chilli crab. In the Southern Balkans it is Mother Theresa who has become an apple of discord (as if there weren’t apples of discord enough). She was born in Skopje to an Albanian mother and an apparently Aromanian father, himself born in what is now Kosovo. Who owns her? In the Balkans – everybody! And so she gets the main boulevard of Pristina named after her, and her statue graces a tiny park in the middle. Two likenesses of Ibrahim Rugova, considered here the Father of the Nation, flank both ends of the boulevard, lest you forget who really controls the place.
The Northern end of Mother Theresa boulevard ends in the so-called historical quarter. Communism and war have conspired to remove all traces of history from Pristina. Only several mosques remain in the historical quarter, otherwise devoid of any character, streets twisted like bowels, to use my friend Szymon’s words. Albanians in Albania are not actually religious – another legacy of Communism – but in Kosovo, as in any outpost insecure of its identity, religion has been reclaiming its positions.
Is Kosovo a state? Strictly speaking, a key characteristic of a sovereign state is full international recognition. Kosovo obviously lacks this characteristic: many countries have not recognised it, including two permanent members of UN Security Council as well as five EU member states. For this reason it cannot become UN member state and for this reason I do not count it among my visited countries.
In Sarajevo we were talking with Olivia (who has spent five years of her life in Kosovo) about whether Kosovo’s statehood makes any sense. She was saying Kosovo was too small to be a state, and yet it had to be one. I was thinking that actually Estonian population is even smaller than that of Kosovo – 1.3 million to 1.8 – and yet no one questions whether Estonian statehood is reasonable.
In Kosovo though the vast majority of population has no doubts about the independent nature of their country. That majority of course coincides with the ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo. Kosovo is not however controlled by Albania from over the border, the way say Nagorny Karabakh is controlled by Armenia or Abkhazia is controlled by Russia.
One of the rare tourist attractions in Pristina, the NEWBORN statue cements this independent status. It refers of course to the newborn Republic of Kosovo as it was proclaimed in 2008.
The Southern end of the main boulevard. The image of Ibrahim Rugova on the right.
Life is at its most hedonistic on Mother Theresa boulevard in the late evening hours, when it seems all of Pristina is slowly walking by. At this moment you suddenly forget all the troubles and Pristina pretends to be just another Southern European town full of joie de vivre.
The main building of EULEX Kosovo – EU police mission which is still responsible for keeping the order, six years after the proclamation of independence. The Kosovar parliament has repeatedly voted to extend its mandate.
As you head further South, you come across the building of the Kosovo Government. Another Kosovar paradox: the government building is accompanied by the flags of the United States, NATO, EU and Albania, as if it’s a hotel which shows where its current guests come from.
As you walk through the residential areas further South West, you reach the Clinton avenue (which incidentally intersects George Bush avenue). My objective was to see the Clinton monument I’d heard about:
Super sized Bill:
Kosovo of course is controlled by its ethnic Albanian majority, however Serb enclaves persist in a number of areas, usually around ancient Serb monasteries that have not been demolished by the Albanians. It is relatively quiet now in terms of violence. And yet some enclaves are still guarded by the international forces. I was most interested in visiting the Dečani monastery, but it appeared too difficult to do within a day. So I headed for the enclave of Gračanica which is situated only about 10 km to the East of Pristina. A huge billboard announces in Serb in giant Cyrillic letters “Welcome to Gračanica” as you drive in. The entrance to the monastery complex, which looks much like a fortress:
Photos forbidden inside, but I made one quick snap:
Like Montenegro, Kosovo has unilaterally adopted the euro as its currency. Kosovo is shockingly cheap. I visited a supermarket, took a number of items and my bill was €1,43. At first I thought I’d misheard.
The food is also very good, as is the coffee – probably thanks to the huge number of international workers. Delicious grilled meat in a random restaurant next to Mother Theresa boulevard:
A typical local dish – meat baked in cheese: