20 April 2007

Independent Kosovo in danger of 'social explosion': analysts

Agence France Presse, 26 janvier 2007 11:43


PRISTINA, Serbia, Jan 25, 2007 (AFP)


Winning independence won't resolve all problems for the people of Kosovo, where an economic crisis may yet threaten peace and stability, analysts have warned.


"Real problems can emerge when the people start to think with their stomachs," journalist and economic analyst Ibrahim Rexhepi told AFP.


Rexhepi said he did not exclude the possibility of the dire economic situation leading to a "social explosion."


"That's possible, in particular because leaders will no longer be in a position to give promises on independence" to placate and pacify the tense province's two million people, he added.


"They won't have an opportunity any more to buy time and achieve a social peace with promises," said the editor-in-chief of the daily Lajem.


The warnings came as a United Nations envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, presented a plan Friday that the international community hopes will end ethnic Albanians' impatience for independence.


Kosovo has been in limbo for nearly eight years, since NATO intervened to halt a crackdown by Serbian forces against the ethnic Albanian population during a 1998-1999 war with separatist guerrillas.


Ahead of the status resolution, many argue that Kosovo cannot count on a viable future as an independent state because of its economy.


The province's economy is, if anything, in a worse state than in the post-war period when foreign donors opened their coffers for reconstruction. But this has dried up in the past two years.


"There hasn't been any significant foreign investment in Kosovo so far. We need foreign capital," said Isa Mustafa, a renowned Pristina University professor.


Unemployment in Kosovo stands at 40-45 percent, and is rising; around half its people live below the poverty line, with 15 percent of them extreme cases; annual per capita income is the lowest in the region at around 1,250 euros (1,615 dollars); and exports cover only 10 percent of imports.


For most of Kosovo's people, the situation is becoming unbearable.


Ferat Uka, 28, travels from northeastern Kosovo to Pristina early each morning in the hope of finding any work that the capital's urban population find unenviable.


"If I'm lucky, I earn 30-40 euros (38-52 dollars) a week, almost enough for bread and milk for my two kids," he says.


"I can only dream about buying winter shoes and an overcoat for my older daughter, Merlinda, who entered school this year."


But Blerim Bajrami, 21, a second-hand mobile phone vendor in downtown Pristina, says the economic situation is so bad that he thinks it cannot get worse.


"Our leaders say (the economic situation) will be a new story in Kosovo when we become independent. I don't have a reason not to believe so," says Bajrami.


"On the contrary, I believe my dream to have a shop with glass and brand new cellphones around me will come true in an independent Kosovo."


Political leaders in Pristina are convinced the economy will improve significantly when Kosovo becomes independent.


Their main message to voters is that access to much-needed funding and investment was badly affected by Kosovo's unresolved status.


"Independence will help us," Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku told AFP in an interview last week.


"The undefined status was a big obstacle to tackling the economic challenges and issues. Kosovo is going to be an economically valuable and economically sustainable country. There's no doubt about that," said Ceku.


University professor Mustafa says that despite all the hardship, Kosovo's economy has a chance to improve, "but independence doesn't solve problems automatically."


The outgoing UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, which is to be replaced by a European Union-led administration, focussed on transforming social structures, rather than making the province self-sufficient.


UNMIK's indifferent economic management held back private sector investment, transforming Kosovo in a consumer society where streets are cluttered with thousands of mostly loss-making shops.


"We have to get rid of the illusion that after the independence our streets will be loaded with dollars," said Rexhepi.


But for people on the ground, there remains the hope that independence, and stability it brings, will mean a better future.


"We live a dog's life. It's unbearable when I have to return home empty-handed in the evening. I certainly hope independence will bring better days to my family and me," says Uka.