“Vote for who?” replies Arlind Juniku when asked if he will vote in the upcoming Assembly elections. “Each one is uglier than the next!”
Sitting in one of Gjakova’s many cafes, the young man makes his assertion as if simply stating a fact. “I say that they have not done anything to develop something, to advance something, that can put the youth in a better position.”
Gjakova, together with Peja, Decan, Dragas, Istog and Kline, all lie within Kosovo’s western and north western areas, or the Dukagjini region as it is better known. None of these cities saw a turnout above 40 percent in the last Assembly elections in 2014, where the average turnout in the country as a whole was a mere 42.6 percent; in Gjakova, just 35.5 percent of registered voters turned out last time around, representing one of the lowest turnouts anywhere in Kosovo.
“The government has done nothing for Gjakova. Nothing, zero, not even one percent,” Juniku asserts, frustrated. He believes that this is because the local government, headed since the 2013 local elections by former-AKR, now-Alternativa mayor, Mimoza Kusari-Lila, is run by a different party from those that have been in government, and therefore does not receive central support.
Arlind Juniku believes that there is nobody to vote for as each candidate is “uglier than the next.” Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0
It’s a point that Kusari-Lila has made herself. In addition to inheriting a big debt from the former administration led by AAK’s Pal Lekaj, in 2015 she claimed she has also faced obstruction and “many problems” from central institutions, such as the Privatisation Agency of Kosovo (PAK), which she said had delayed the Municipality’s plans for creating an Industrial Park.
The planned Industrial Park is set to be a designated economic zone, with specific business and trade conditions that aim to increase trade, investment, job creation and effective administration. According to Kusari-Lila, PAK has stalled in granting the Municipality use of two key buildings, essential due to a lack of available communal space, and is responsible for subsequent delays in the project that have caused a number of prospective investors to pull out.
The two buildings in question, the Metaliku complex that is part of the metallurgic machinery company formerly owned by Trepca, and the nearby former-Virxhinia tobacco processing plant, once hosted many of Gjakova’s 16,000 industrial workers during the city’s economic heyday in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, their abandoned and dilapidated state serve as a metaphor for the economy of the city, with just 20 percent of the local population able to rely on work as their primary livelihood source.
Gjakova has also traditionally been a city where culture has been held in high regard, locked in a healthy competition with nearby Peja. But in a 2015 Culture For All lecture, international cultural experts remarked that Gjakova’s cultural glory days had faded, and in certain instances were beyond repair.
Ardian Kastrati who owns a small clothes store and is from the village of Shishmin in Gjakova, says that, despite still being young, the decline he has witnessed in his city means he will not participate in the elections at all: “Who is there to vote for? For who? For thieves? Look at the citizens in their [daily] lives, the businesses and everything — we are losing, not gaining! [We are] being destroyed slowly…” he tails off, while lowering his gaze, clearly distressed.
He says that he has received no help from any institution in maintaining his business; a 2013 study by good governance think tank Gap Institute said that no economic support was provided by the previous AAK administration, despite a promise to support small businesses. In April last year, Kusari-Lila announced a grant of 70,000 euros for small and medium-sized businesses, prioritizing women and young people, although it is only a small step for what is one of the main sources of income for citizens of Gjakova.
Ardian Kastrati points to past broken promises from politicians and the theft of votes at previous elections as reasons not to have faith in the election. Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0.
Kastrati is inconsolable, saying that politicians and parties are “all in the same sack,” simply furthering their own interests and not those of citizens. “Lies,” he proclaims, in summary at what he hears from politicians. “For 18 years it’s the same things on repeat. ‘Employment, then visas, then this and that,’ but we have been suffering for 18 years.”
He believes that voting in Kosovo is futile as he cannot even trust that his vote will be counted. “Whether we go out [to cast a vote] or not, they will still steal all of them,” he says.
Evidence from the 2010 elections suggest that Kastrati has good reason to be skeptical. The State Prosecution received 1,594 criminal complaints after the general election that year relating to election irregularities that the former U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, referred to as “industrial theft” of votes. Despite this, seven years on, just 206 people have been successfully prosecuted for election crimes relating to the period 2009 to 2014.
Ramadan Radosta, a man in his 40s, says that the central government has abandoned Gjakova since the war, despite it being the city that “shed most blood, and deserves everything for the bravery.”
One of the oldest cities in Kosovo, with historical crafts and trades, Gjakova also housed successful factories such as Gorenje Elektromotor, one of the largest exporters of washing machines in former Yugoslavia; However the city was badly hit by the decade of repression during the ’90s, before being devastated by violence and destruction during the war. After the war ended, many of the larger industrial companies, which had been run by parent companies in Serbia, chose to take their business elsewhere.
Ramadan Radosta says that despite Gjakova making many sacrifices during the war, it has been subsequently ignored by politicians. Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0.
“They [Kosovo’s politicians] have left it really undeveloped — before the war Gjakova was one of the richest cities for factories,” he says, referring to the metalwork and textile industries in particular that used to thrive in the city. “And now nothing…” he pauses. “We also know that Gjakova has smart-heads, like geniuses, for education, jobs and for everything.”
Until recently, the city even had an airport, used by KFOR, which at one point was held up by then-Minister of Trade and Industry, Kusari-Lila, as a great opportunity for economic development. But 18 months ago, despite over 30 million euros reportedly having been invested by KFOR, the airport closed its doors. With election season in full swing, LDK’s candidate for prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, is once again promising that the airport will be re-opened and made operational.
But such promises are met with skepticism by many. “Who is good? Nobody!” says Granit Kastrati, a youth in his mid-20s, who, together with his sister, is on one of their regular visits to Kosovo from their EU home. Like many Kosovars living in the diaspora, he has found the voter registration process problematic and he is unsure if he is going to be able to vote. But if he is, he says he will vote only for Vetevendosje. “This is our last hope,” he says.
Like many Kosovars living in the diaspora, Granit Kastrati has had trouble with the voter registration process. Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0
Hoping for better days ahead
Not far from Gjakova, lies the city of Peja, Gjakova’s nemesis but closest friend. Citizens of the two cities have long been locked in mutual mockery of each other, a healthy cultural competition, and debate over who has the better food products. Nevertheless, even that is fading.
Just as in Gjakova, Peja’s economy is far from booming, and many potential voters are apathetic — just 39.5 percent of registered voters turned out in 2014.
“You can see it on a daily basis that the youth is very desperate and delusional in some way,” says Eldin Jevric, a young man in his 20s. “I do not know how long this will go on, and if anything will change after the voting. I hope for the best, but it is really difficult.”
In the 2013 municipal elections, Peja was won by LDK, defeating an AAK-LDD coalition by the slimmest of margins, with Gazmend Muhaxheri becoming mayor. “I don’t see anything changing, at least not for the moment,” Jevric says. “But like everyone, I hope that better days will come.”
Eldin Jevric says he would consider migration abroad, due to a lack of opportunities in Peja. Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0.
Jevric is a recent graduate, but finishing the Public University of Peja “Haxhi Zeka,” or any other university in Kosovo for that matter, is far from a guarantee of getting a job, and he is part of the 58 percent of young people — and 33 percent of the total population — in Kosovo who are unemployed. If presented with a better opportunity abroad, he says he would not think twice about leaving the country. “Why not,” he says. “For a start, you are not losing anything here.”
He thinks that an air of desperation has engulfed young people in Peja. “It is a time when a man loses his faith in this country, and starts thinking of something better,” he states, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Two big companies have their headquarters in Peja, Elkos Group that employs around 3,000 people around Kosovo, and Devolli Corporation with around 800 employees, and which, according to Kosovo’s now-acting prime minister Isa Mustafa, cooperates with 15,000 local farmers.
The city has started to invest in tourism, with the aim of developing its role as a hub for accessing the panoramic surroundings of the ‘Accursed Mountains,’ the Rugova Canyon, and the rivers Lumbardhi i Pejes and the White Drin. According to Kosovo Agency of Statistics, Peja’s hotels received almost 33,000 visitors last year, nearly 9,000 more than the year before that, and 20,000 more than in 2008.
There is also the promise of economic development around the corner. After the collapse of the 400 million euro project to develop the Brezovica ski resort in the Sharri Mountains, lately the government, together with the Municipality of Peja, announced the award for a tender to develop a brand new ski-resort, just 900 meters from the center of Peja in the Kopaonik Mountains. The 60 million euro public-private partnership project will create a resort named “Borea,” named after an Illyrian or Greek Goddess, depending on who explains it.
According to Mayor Muhaxheri, the Borea ski-resort should be completed within 20 to 24 months. Operational year-round as an activity hub, the mayor has said that he hopes the new resort will attract 240,000 visitors each year to the city and that the opportunities created will help to stem the exodus of Peja’s citizens towards Prishtina.
However after the contract for the project was awarded to the Italian-Slovenian consortium ‘Leitner AG SPA and FILAV SA’ in April, doubts about the authenticity of the tender process were raised by some media organizations, including Kohaplus, which alleged corruption and money laundering.
Such developments have done nothing to foster a culture of trust in politicians in Peja. “If I could, all those people that are there at the top [of government], I would send them home without a pension,” says a woman that works in a hairdressing salon, who does not want to reveal her name. “Whenever we’ve needed it, the state has not helped us.”
Her friend speaks up from the background, explaining that she had worked for 30 years “and they have kicked me out without a pension.”
Many voters in Peja have little faith in politicians, believing that they have been let down by the people in power. Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0.
The hairdresser believes that all the officials put themselves first, and only if there is something left do they give to the citizens. “They have money for themselves to go around on vacations like 10 times a year, but they have no money for ill people,” she says, frustrated.
“Well I don’t know who I should vote for,” says an older shopkeeper, Florim Pocesta. He feels that in the past 17 years since the war, things haven’t materialized as he had imagined they would. “It is the same government. As soon as they [the new government] take it [their positions], the same thing is going to happen,” he adds, while looking on, distantly. “For me it is the same, there is nothing new.”
Florim Pocesta says that while he has voted in the past, he now has nothing to vote for as young people such as his children have few prospects. Photo: Agan Kosumi / K2.0.
“Who should I vote for?” he asks, raising the same question heard again and again in the Dukagjini region. “You can see the young people without jobs — why should I vote for anyone?” Pocesta has a store in which he sells small, inexpensive items — bras and scarves, as well as clothes and other trinkets — and through which he must support his family of five.
“In my family there is no one working,” he says. “We all depend on this shop, which we have rented. Five family members. My daughter has finished the Faculty of Law, and she is unemployed. My son is 23 years old — unemployed.”
Pocesta says that while his children remain unemployed, he cannot imagine voting for anyone. “What else should I think?” he asks. “When the state does not think of you, I do not need to go out to vote. Until now I have voted, but not anymore.”
When asked if he sees progress in Peja, he says he can see that infrastructure has begun to be rebuilt here and there but that it is not enough. “Young people are without work and have no prospects,” he says. “While they have no jobs, I cannot imagine voting for someone. I’m not happy with the people [politicians],” he asserts, adding that promises are made loosely during the brief election campaigns, but citizens are quickly forgotten afterwards.
The shop owner says he will only consider voting again under one condition: if he sees that “things were to change for good.” But it seems that it is too late for this time around. Of the just 39,919 people who turned out in the 2014 Assembly elections, another can be crossed off as no longer believing they have something to vote for.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.