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Dissecting Prishtina

By - 03.06.2013

The capital is a city by name but a zombie in spirit.

The thousand-year history of the city is really only a prelude to the human constructions we know today. So much so that, with few exceptions, what we call “cities” in most of history would likely qualify today as little more than large villages. The most recent developments in cities are continued growth of the modern city, which emerged about 200 years ago. By the 19th century, cities had so extensively shaped European social, economic and political life that the rise of the modern industrial city is little more than an extension of the cities of old.

The late medieval polities of Europe were built on the institutional infrastructure of its cities, and they were beginning to crack the feudal institutions of agrarian Europe. Across the large cities in Europe today one can still find the remnants of the once-bustling medieval urban nuclei, the remains of fortifications and of old city walls.

It was in this period that cities assumed a key role, after the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate across the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern Europe. Soon, republican institutions that had developed in the medieval cities spread throughout feudal Europe. Medievalist Henri Pirenne says in “Medieval Cities,” “Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would probably never have existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.”

The rise of capitalist modernity marked a break with the medieval cities. In 19th-century Paris, urban life and culture embodied this rise. Growing consumption, especially by the nascent bourgeoisie, involved changes in both the meaning of cultural objects and their relationship with temporality. This brought Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish — commodities as objects possessing their own virtues while masking relations between people — fully into the urban space. The public’s space was being overtaken by the market. But unlike medieval cities, where the market was typically confined to a specific area, in capitalist modernity, the entirety of urban space succumbed to the fetish. American public intellectual Lewis Mumford described the city in part as “the theater of social action.” But with the commodity fetish, the urban theater was transformed into a site of consumption.

Capitalist modernity introduced changes in the social composition of the city, as well. Among these was the emergence of a new social group, the “boheme”: artists and writers who usually came out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie. They were often critical of bourgeois culture, yet politically unattached to the growing proletariat and its revolutionary tendencies. Their art, found in Charles Baudelaire’s poetry and the work of Honore de Balzac, introduced the notion of viewing social life in a detached and disengaged manner, a symptom of alienation from the social world.

Planning as power

It was in the 19th century that Baron von Haussmann transformed Paris, annihilating the medieval city and old quarters, creating new urban spaces centered on wide boulevards, organizing city blocks into a grid, and incorporating a controlled, rationalized, birds-eye view of the urban plan. In destroying the old city, Haussmann’s remaking of Paris served both the interests of financial speculators investing in urban real estate, as well as the regime of Napoleon III. The monarch wished to put an end to the rioting and protests of Paris’ popular classes by establishing open urban spaces that could be easily surveilled and placed under the control of the army in moments of crisis.

The practice of urban planning and the top-down organization of urban space in this era proved capable of weaving together capital and state in opposition to the growing political demands of popular classes.

In the 20th century, urbanization and industrialization became the clarion calls of modernizing elites. After 1945, the world divided into new power blocs (“capitalist” and “socialist”), and the collapse of the old imperial order put decolonization and development at the top of the global agenda.

Outside the power blocs, the Third World was set to tread in a series of steps once traversed by the West, albeit at a more rapid pace. The goal was to politically and administratively master modernization. Urbanization would follow a similar path as in 19th-century Europe. As industrialization took off, cities would grow, societies would become more literate and mobile, and values would change to reflect the “modern” culture of participation and consumerism. Societies where such linear processes failed to take place were accused of being maladapted to the demands of modernity due to the continued strength of traditional society.

Overview of the Tophane District.

A new urbanization

In the Soviet Union and socialist Eastern Europe, a politically managed economy also produced a politically determined path of urbanization. While cities and industries grew, collectivization and legal restrictions on migration preserved relatively large rural populations.

It is in this situation that urbanization in the traditionally agrarian southwest part of the Balkans also took place. It is not that cities in the Balkans are a creation of the 20th century, of course. But cities in the Ottoman Europe never grew as quickly as those in northwestern Europe. Population density in the rugged and mountainous terrains of the Ottoman Europe was lower than other parts of Europe. In fact, economic historians point out that population scarcity was so high for most of the 16th and 17th centuries in Ottoman Europe that labor shortages left large swaths of fertile land unpopulated.

The agrarian Ottoman economy favored small, rural communities and limited long-distance trade as a contributor to growth. The merchant class in the Balkans remained small and dealt mainly in local goods. At the same time, sea transportation and the Atlantic orientation of Europe after the 16th century undercut the historical trade routes through the ancient Balkans. Long-distance trade in the empire was concentrated in Istanbul and major ports such as Thessaloniki. So the empire’s peripheral lands sustained themselves as low-productivity, subsistence-based agrarian hinterlands. “The “reaya” (common people) produce the wealth,” and “the sultan keeps the ‘reaya’ by making justice reign,” was part of the empire’s ruling ideology, a so-called “circle of equity.”

These conditions persisted the longest in the Ottoman regions of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia because urbanization accompanied the formation of new nation-states in other former Ottoman regions. But it was not realized until well into the 20th century in these corners of the former empire. In the case of Kosovo, political interest in urbanization did not arrive until after World War II, with the birth of the new socialist Yugoslavia and its drive for rapid industrial development.

Overview of the crossroads at the Ulpiana District.

Birth of a city

This is where modern Prishtina emerges. In 1945, Prishtina was a small town of about 20,000 inhabitants. Turkish was the prevailing language of its residents. Like urban dwellers in most of Kosovo’s towns, they used the old imperial language to distinguish themselves from the Albanian speakers and Serbian speakers in the surrounding villages.

Prishtina and Kosovo came out of a gruesome war burdened with colonial domination by the land’s post-Ottoman imperial ruler, Serbia. Serb leaders identified muslim Albanians and Turkish speakers as unwanted elements in the reclaimed region of “Old Serbia.” So Belgrade employed a series of policies of population expulsion, accompanied by direct colonization by Serbs and Montenegrins. These colonists were brought to reclaim what political leaders called Serbia’s rightful heritage in Kosovo. Though in governing the newly conquered Kosovo, Belgrade sought the cooperation of Kosovo’s Albanian land-owning elite. The end of World War II placed Kosovo under a new regime and an entirely new political project of state-directed, socialist industrial development.

The effects were evident by the 1950s, but Kosovo’s industrial transformation did not take off until 1965, with the establishment of the federal Fund for Underdeveloped Regions. Kosovo was allotted some 40 percent of the total funds. The provincial leadership demanded this assistance to help the ailing region as it fell behind the rest of Yugoslavia. Much of the money went toward urban development, especially in Prishtina. Postcard images are common even today of the city’s new neighborhoods of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period some recall as Prishtina’s “glory days.”

The structure of modern Prishtina reflects this history; the relics of Yugoslav socialist developmentalism lie on top of the few remnants of the old Ottoman market town. Direct administrative power was established with the first buildings of local government — including the municipal building and the current government building — in a kind of small-scale, less-impressive, quasi-Haussmannian style. Though rather modest by world standards, these new symbols of power ravaged the old Ottoman-style city center, the heart of old Prishtina.

The development of the new center, that narrow stretch of about a half-kilometer that persists today, also demanded destruction of the old city. This decisively shifted the development of the city west and south, toward the flat plains of Fushe Kosove, and away from the hillsides into which the old city had been tucked. The new terrain allowed for the residential high-rise construction that characterized city growth in the 1970s and the early 1980s, including the new neighborhoods of Ulpiana, Dardania and Bregu i Diellit (Sunny Hill).

Moving up

The rise of urban Prishtina parallels the creation of modern Kosovo. The city has long been a magnet for non-Prishtinians. Indeed, like most cities, Prishtina grew mainly through the immigration of outsiders, and today their descendants vastly outnumber the families that lived in the city in 1945. But in the Yugoslav period, this migration was controlled. People moved for institutional reasons: to attend gymnasium or university, for a new job (especially in the expanding administrative sector), or to unite with family members.

In contrast to today, economic despair was an uncommon reason for moving to the city, not because there was no such thing — unemployment in socialist Kosovo was never less than 25 percent — but because the city’s employment opportunities were little better than anywhere else. And it would have been hard to find a place to live, because enterprises controlled access to residential units. There were few possibilities for private initiative. During the apartheid 1990s, there were even fewer reasons to move to the city. But this population dynamic shifted after 1999, with Kosovo’s transformed economy and the promise of a new state.

During the war of 1999, Serbian forces emptied Prishtina of most Albanian residents, though the city was spared the worst physical damage. After the war, expansion resumed, along with attempts to regulate urban development. Now largely under private control, problems with growth were exacerbated by weak postwar governance that allowed squatting and usurpation of public and private property by gangs. A flood of foreign nationals arrived in the city as part of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) UNMIK and other international organizations, and they carried pockets full of hard currency to spend on rental properties, igniting a real estate boom.

Death’s disruption

Among the casualties of postwar disorder was the prominent architect Rexhep Luci, who was killed in 2000 by still-unknown assailants. Luci had tried in vain to prevent Prishtina’s uncontrolled development and to bring order to urban growth. He organized the conference “Vision for Prishtina, 2000-05” just before his slaying, but his vision proved elusive. His death marked the end of an era for the city and was followed by a period of “wild” expansion and massive disruption in the urban social fabric.

This disturbance was due not only to the arrival of Kosovo’s new foreign masters (who ruled officially) and the local strongmen (who dominated informally), but also to the tidal wave of people arriving from rural areas. They fled destroyed homes and ruined local economies. Contrary to the past, economic despair now drove migration into the city. Sheer opportunism and the hope for quick profits lured others. The war hit rural areas particularly hard, and afterward, cheap, imported food flooded local markets, undermining local agriculture. Prishtina’s new service economy — including the international organization sector — seemed to create opportunities for gainful employment, especially for the young, though jobs were often short-lived. Among cities, Prishtina offered the only economic hope. Industrial collapse led to the ruin of Kosovo’s other urban centers. Former industrial engines Mitrovica and Gjakova were thrown into deep poverty.

By 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence, Prishtina had assumed a new image, a symbol of new wealth and political power under the rapacious capitalism of postwar transformation. It carried a politico-economic consensus that Kosovo scholar Agon Hamza calls “newborn ideology.”

On the edge

Kosovo is today at risk of “urban primacy,” a condition in which a single city contains a disproportionate percentage of a country’s urban population and population in general. It is common throughout the developing world, where the pace of urban concentration has led to miserable conditions for the poor in informal settlements, like the “favelas” of Brazil, the shantytowns of South Africa, and semi-formal settlements like Bathore in Tirana. The strength of social ties in rural Kosovo, and the support many receive from family members abroad, has kept the population shift in check for now, but this may not last. Kosovo’s traditional industrial sectors have not been renewed, and more legal obstacles stand in the way of migrating abroad. People will continue to seek refuge in Prishtina.

A city is a social institution before it is a physical structure, Mumford argues. Among the more serious problems with modern Prishtina is the failure of social institutions to develop and strengthen ties of urban association and self-organization. The city’s segmented social fabric is apparent to anyone who spends time there. Also evident is the expectation that all solutions be resolved from the top-down, and that “they” are to blame (the politicians, the developers, the newcomers, the foreigners, etc.) for the cities’ failures. “Community” — “bashkesi” — is a word with little meaning in the city and tends to recall the failed attempts by the Yugoslav state to encourage participation through local community units, the famed “bashkesi lokale.” They still exist, albeit in degraded form, as units of municipal administration and channels for political party cronyism.

Uncontrolled growth, high migration, increased poverty, the risk of intensifying urban primacy, street crime, infrastructural mismanagement, the failure of the city to weave a social fabric — these have stagnated Prishtina at the stage it has been in since the city’s modern birth. It is a city in name but a zombie in spirit. It remains politically enervated and permanently subject to the whims of political and economic forces that lie beyond its control.