COLUMBIA — Kosovo, a land of both ancient culture and modern strife, marked its one-month birthday Monday as the world’s newest nation — and also one of the youngest. More than half of its two million citizens are under 30.
“We are the newest nation on Earth,” Shpend Ibraimi said. “I have the (Kosovo) Declaration of Independence pinned on my wall.” Born in the former Yugoslav province, Shpend escaped with his family to the U.S. in 1999 while his country was being ravaged by a brutal war that claimed 10,000 lives.
IF YOU GOWhat: Departure ceremony for National Guard troops When: 11 a.m. Saturday Where: Hearnes Center
With about 20 members, the family constitutes the core of the Kosovo Albanian community in Columbia. Their freedom secured, they are now outside, watching their countrymen take the first steps to independence.
Kosovo officially broke from Serbia on Feb. 17, ending what might be the last chapter in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia that gave birth to seven independent states in fewer than two decades.
Montenegro, with a population of only 600,000, broke away in 2006, after secession by Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.
“This is the new order,” Shpend said. “Kosovo has been independent for nine years, but they (Serbs) were in denial.”
Kosovo has been under U.N. administration and NATO protection since a 1999 bombing campaign that stopped Serbian hostilities against the country’s ethnic Albanian majority.
The U.S. and other major Western powers back independence for Kosovo, an ethnic crossroads in the heart of the Balkans that is largely ethnic Albanian with smaller populations of Serbs, Turks and other groups.
Russia and China back Serbia’s opposition to the loss of territory, and the tension continues to spark violent repercussions.
Vanja Petrovic, an employee of the Missourian and a Columbia resident of Croat-Serbian descent, tries to take a reasonable view of the situation. She believes Serbia cannot force Kosovo to bend to its will, especially since the Serbs are outnumbered 9-to-1.
“You cannot reconcile people who reject you by 95 percent,” Petrovic said.
As Kosovo works through its intent to be recognized as a sovereign country, serious issues lie ahead:
- Kosovo has the political challenge of becoming part of international groups such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the World Trade Organization, the U.N. and someday NATO and the EU.
- Only 50 percent of the country’s workforce is fully employed. The rest are either long-term unemployed or working unofficially.
- Some 45 percent of the population subsists below the poverty line of 1.5 euros ($2.30) a day.
- Kosovo’s road and rail network fell into a total state of disrepair during the 1990s and was partly destroyed in the 1998-99 conflict.
- The country also faces corruption, a weak legal system, high interest rates — around 13 percent — and an education system in need of improvement.
Nonetheless, Shpend is optimistic.
“Now that independence has been accomplished comes the real test for the government, because it has no more excuses,” he said. “Now is the time to make it work.”
One of the few strengths Kosovo has is its C thermal power plant, a major project that aims to draw upon the territory’s huge lignite deposits to turn Kosovo into a power exporter by 2015.
The spoils of independence
For decades, there has been a saying among Kosovo Albanians who were about to part for a long time: “I‘ll see you next year, hopefully in an independent Kosovo.”
Now, it’s only “See you next year.”
Just after independence was declared last month, a new surge of nationalism began to surface in Kosovo.
“The first thing I remember when Kosovo declared independence is watching Kosovo’s Prime Minister (Hashim Thaci) saying, ‘Hearing the call from the people and our grandfathers from centuries, we do declare New,’” said Shpend, a short man of no more than 150 pounds with clear blue eyes and a boyish look.
He immediately linked Kosovo’s independence with the joy of being able to support a national team in international competition.
“You can stand up and cheer and say ‘This is our team!’ “
Kosovo’s table tennis team, in fact, is making efforts to become the first acknowledged national team representing the new state at the Beijing Olympic Games this summer.
Much of the history of Kosovo is of repression, rebellion and religious disagreements.
Nearly 1,000 years ago, the Kingdom of Serbia built landmark Orthodox churches on Kosovo territory, and Kosovo became a stronghold of the Serbian church.
When the Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans — Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Romania — in the 14th century, Kosovo’s orthodox population began to move north to Serbia, and they were eventually replaced by Albanians, who now make up 90 percent of the population. These Albanians are converts to Islam.
Today, Serbia claims that Kosovo is its spiritual heartland, but there are scarcely more than 150,000 orthodox residents on its territory.
For most Serbs, “Kosovo is Serbia” is a popular Serbian slogan.
Only four days after Kosovo declared its independence, rioters in Belgrade attacked Western embassies and looted shops.
Three days later, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said, “The United States must annul the decision to recognize a false state on the territory of Serbia.”
Violent ethnic Serb protests were held also in the Bosnian Serb Republic capital, Banja Luka, Novi Sad in northern Serbia, Vienna, and northern Kosovo, a Serb stronghold in the new state.
Serbs in the north reject the secession, fueling fears that the country is destined for partition, which may trigger a Serb secession from Bosnia.
A Kosovo Albanian in Columbia
In 1999, Shpend and his mother fled by foot from his hometown of Djakovica in western Kosovo to neighboring Macedonia. They came to the U.S. under a U.N. refugee program.
At that time, the 12-year-old Shpend was given no explanation why they had to flee, other than “because we were different, we were not Serbs.”
After living for two years in Mexico, Mo., he and his mother moved to Columbia “because it’s a bigger city, with more opportunities.”
It took them three years to secure a means of living on their own, and they largely counted on government aid of less than $1,000 a month to survive.
Shpend has four uncles, all living in Missouri. Two worked at a canning factory in Mexico, Mo., and harbored plans to open Felini, a restaurant now in downtown Columbia.
“We have had restaurants in Kosovo, and I worked Greek cuisine before,” said Ilir Canhasi, one of Shpend’s uncles and the owner of Felini.
He and his wife worked 63 hours of overtime a week for four years at the canning factory to save money. Felini opened in October 2003.
“The other two (uncles) just worked. They still do (at the canning factory),” Shpend said.
He spoke no English at all when he and his mother escaped to America. Shpend said he found people in the U.S. independent and cold at first and said it was hard to adjust.
Yet being different in America is not like being different in his country, he said, because “here people choose to not pay attention to who’s different because it is a country of differences.”
“Because you don’t have just two groups (Serbian and Albanian), you have 300 million different people, which balances things out.”
He now believes he has more experience and knowledge, and he is proud of who he is and where he comes from.
Shpend tried to maintain a serious relationship with an American girl for a year and a half, but they broke up when they could not overcome their cultural differences.
In his happiest moments, he would play an Albanian song, but his girlfriend would not share his joy.
“I am an American, but I was not born in America,” he said.
Shpend shares a common desire with other Kosovo Albanian emigrants, though: to live in an independent Kosovo.
These emigrants want to feel connected to a homeland they have never had.
“A sense of belonging ... a sense of home, the air belongs to you,” Shpend said, describing his ties to Kosovo.
He has already realized his desire for independence, but his hometown, Djakovica, is also free.
But here, he no longer feels different.
Missourian reporter Vladimir Petrov is originally from Bulgaria and is now a visiting scholar at the MU School of Journalism.