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Kosovo independence raises hopes for revival

Kosovo's new government must also satisfy an ethnic Albanian majority that is mired in poverty but flush with expectations that independence will rapidly translate into prosperity.
Image: A Kosovar woman and her children watch the fire set to burnout their garbage.
A Kosovar woman and her children watch the fire set to burn their garbage in Pristina on Saturday, six days after Kosovo's parliament declared the province's independence from Serbia, giving Europe a new nation and marking an historic turning point in the volatile Balkans.Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The last time Florie Myrtaj drew a paycheck was in 2002. Her husband has been out of work, too. The only way they survive is through the charity of a relative living in Germany.

But in this economically stricken city, Myrtaj, a 42-year-old mother of three, sees a window of opportunity opening. Among Kosovars, she is not alone.

"We're all hoping that independence will change our lives," she said.

Kosovo has faced angry resistance from its Serb minority since declaring independence Sunday. But while attempting to temper the fury of ethnic Serbs with promises of tolerance, the country's government must now also satisfy an ethnic Albanian majority that is mired in poverty but flush with expectations that independence will rapidly translate into prosperity.

"People in Kosovo lived in a ghetto and they tolerated it in the name of independence," said Berat Buzhala, editor of the Express newspaper in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. "They think independence will solve everything, automatically and quickly. Unrealistic expectations could be a big problem."

Since NATO troops entered Kosovo in 1999 after expelling Serb forces, economic growth has been feeble. Unemployment hovers around 40 percent and soars to more than 60 percent in Gjakova and some other cities.

Once an industrial hub in Yugoslavia, Gjakova -- called Djakovica by Serbs -- was devastated by the war. Serb forces killed 1,000 people in this region and burned 10,000 homes and businesses. Most of the homes have been rebuilt, according to Haqif Shehi, a former mayor of Gjakova. But a recovery effort that was started following NATO's arrival has stalled; it never translated into job-creating growth.

"We're still waiting for the future," said Shehi. "We're very happy about independence, but the economic situation is very bad. And we need jobs for our young people."

With 2 million people, Kosovo has Europe's youngest and fastest-growing population. Barring an economic recovery, about 50 percent of Kosovars ages 20 to 35 intend to emigrate, according to a report by Forum 2015, a research group in Pristina.

The new government is expected to apply soon for membership in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Economic development funds are also expected to flow from the United States and Western European countries, including Britain and Germany, which have recognized Kosovo's independence.

But even under the most optimistic growth scenarios, the former Serbian province will still face a steep road before reaching standards of living on par with those of Western Europe, according to Luan Shllaku, executive director of the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.

The Gorenje electric motor company, where Myrtaj worked, sits on the edge of this city, an industrial graveyard of empty factories that once hummed with activity. At its peak, the Gorenje plant employed more than 1,000 people. It was among a host of enterprises in the region that generated $100 million in exports in the 1980s from metals, textiles and agriculture.

But with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, which led to international sanctions against Yugoslavia, economic activity in the region ground to a halt. During the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, the Gorenje factory was looted. After the war, the factory's employee-owners spent years establishing their ownership rights with the U.N. administration.

"This last nine years were a great disappointment for Gjakova," said Ali Buza, the general manager of the Gorenje factory. He is one of about 20 people who do minimal maintenance to keep the plant viable should a foreign investor arrive.

"I'm hoping that independence will create the right conditions for foreign investors," he said. "We have an educated, skilled workforce in Gjakova who desperately want the dignity of work."

Buza said the factory's current shareholders were unable to secure the kind of low-interest, long-term credit they needed to rebuild the factory themselves. The company's Italian and Danish partners from the 1980s were unwilling to return because of Kosovo's uncertain status and fears about the security situation.

Investors also are turned off by almost daily power cuts, according to Shpend Ahmeti, executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Pristina. In one survey, he said, 80 percent of entrepreneurs questioned said that energy problems were the principal obstacle to the development of their businesses.

Kosovo relies on two aging power plants. But plans to develop a third outside Pristina are engulfed in controversy as environmental groups and other nongovernmental organizations here charge that it would damage the environment and the country's watershed. The government's proposal, they said, also would turn over nearly all of the project's profits to the foreign companies bidding to build it.

But for unemployed workers such as Tome Gocaj, 58, any foreign investment sounds like a godsend. Gocaj, the father of eight children, also survives on money sent from abroad -- in his case, a relative in Switzerland.

Remittances from Kosovo's large diaspora account for 14 percent of gross domestic product, according to a report by Forum 2015.

Gocaj still wanders out to the Gorenje factory, where he worked for more than 30 years.

"It's very sad to see it like this," he said. "I still hope to come back here and have a real job again."