The diaspora remains one of Kosovo’s most valuable political and economic assets, especially during recent years when they have begun to play a very active role in the political and economic life of both their origin country and the countries where they reside.
Kosovo has experienced three major migration waves in recent history: the first one that began in the 1960s, the second in the 1990s and the third after Kosovo’s declaration of independence—especially between 2014 and 2015, when hundreds of thousands of citizens migrated to EU countries. The final wave consisted mainly of qualified workers and cadres who for the first time have been highly sought-after in the European labor market in recent years.
The exact number of Kosovar diaspora remains unknown; an attempt to voluntarily register them was initiated, but it failed. However, it is estimated that about 800,000 Kosovar Albanians live in the diaspora, the majority located in Germany and Switzerland.
In the ‘90s, the diaspora played a crucial role in Kosovo’s liberation from the Serbian regime, and it remains one of the main sources of income for the country through remittances. They significantly increase revenue and consumption, help maintain a basic level of well-being (especially in low-income families) and fill the state treasury through taxes.
In 2018, the diaspora remittances were around 750 million euros or about 15 percent of Kosovo’s GDP. These amounts only reflect the official bank transactions, meaning they do not include cash flow, non-monetary contributions and gifts.
In the difficult time of the pandemic, the diaspora has sent even more money to their families and is a crucial source of income that aids the country’s economy.
The readiness of diaspora citizens — who number close to half of Kosovo’s population — to be an active part of political, social and economic developments in their country of origin has created a need to draft public policies that regulate their involvement and engagement. Of course, in drafting policies about them it is necessary to involve them as well.
Diaspora’s political representation
In November 2020, Kosovo’s Assembly discussed potential forms of political representation for diaspora in Kosovo. One option discussed was the creation of reserved seats in the Assembly for diaspora representatives.
Creating reserved seats in the Assembly for diaspora is very complex for various reasons — one of them is the fact that such a process would require constitutional changes. When we take into consideration that the votes of two-thirds of the MPs, as well as the votes of two-thirds of the minority MPs, are required for any constitutional change, it is clear that as things stand such a constitutional change is near impossible.
This discussion between the MPs appeared to be mainly superficial and for political benefit, rather than coming out of a sincere desire to involve the diaspora in the country’s decision-making to a greater extent.
Whatever the case, before we discuss reserving seats for the diaspora, it would be better to examine more creative, more feasible solutions that will also have a greater positive impact on diaspora citizens’ daily lives. Maybe this could begin with making it easier for them to vote in Kosovo?
The Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo and the Law on Citizenship of Kosovo guarantee diaspora citizens the right to vote. However, successive governments have not facilitated their participation in the voting process, going so far as to prevent them from voting in embassies or consulates.
An increase in interest to vote by the diaspora has been noticeable in recent years.
The facilitation of voting procedures for the diaspora is driven by the European Commission for Democracy through the Law of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which encourages member countries to enable their citizens to participate in elections to the greatest extent possible.
It is estimated that between 380,000 and 400,000 diaspora members have the right to vote. For the early parliamentary elections in 2019, CEC received a total of 40,313 voter registration applications, out of which 35,087 were accepted. Out of those, only 20,200 people were able to successfully mail in their voting packages, while the rest were refused because they did not meet the criteria or did not manage to mail their ballots in time.
During the 2017 elections, there were 28,354 voting applications, of which 15,118 were accepted, leading to 9,157 voters. During the 2014 elections, there were similar numbers of requests, meaning an increase in interest in voting has been noticeable in recent years.
It seems that the political class in Kosovo has purposefully neglected the diaspora voting process because of the diaspora’s widespread disappointment with the political parties that have governed the country for nearly 20 years. In addition, there is a fear among the establishment that the diaspora could bring great changes to the electoral process, as the diaspora remains the largest social group in Kosovo with over 400,000 voters.
Despite lower participation in the last parliamentary elections in 2019, the diaspora was still the determiner of the results. The difference between the election winners Vetëvendosje and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) that came in second was only 14,485 votes, and the largest number of diaspora votes in these elections were for Vetëvendosje.
Last year, Isa Mustafa, the leader of LDK, declared that it is not fair that the diaspora votes dictate the winner of the election, and it should instead be the votes of citizens who live in Kosovo. This declaration is extremely disappointing and offensive in our circumstances, considering we have an active and dynamic diaspora that still holds close ties to the country.
Why is involvement necessary?
Diaspora involvement in the foreign political representation of Kosovo is important for the improvement of Kosovo’s image abroad, which is currently in the worst position possible and does not hold the attention of important international partners as much as in the past.
The majority of officials who were active during the 1990s years and Kosovo’s international friends are now retired, having been replaced by others who may not be familiar with Kosovo’s context. Even the Albanian lobby of Kosovo, which was more active in the USA than in Europe during the Kosovo liberation period, is now almost completely inactive.
All of these factors have caused the country to lose many influential friends in the US and the EU. This also stems from the fact that after the war in Kosovo, the country’s politicians have lacked the desire and will to work with Kosovo’s Albanian diaspora lobby to make policy. This neglectfulness toward the Albanian lobby in the diaspora, as well as the lack of any specific country-wide cause, are among the main reasons why coordinated involvement has weakened.
Kosovar experts and professionals who have been raised or educated in the diaspora should be hired as diplomatic staff in the embassies and consulates working on foreign policy. This can be achieved through bilateral agreement with individual countries.
The main organized activities for the diaspora have been folkloric concerts and poor cultural activities with no sound benefit for them
Diaspora involvement in Kosovar diplomacy would reinforce Kosovo’s international position, help Kosovo build bridges with other countries and strengthen representation of Kosovo abroad. This approach is also the most favorable for Kosovo’s state budget. The involvement of the diaspora in Kosovo’s diplomatic personnel would even improve the fragile image of a foreign service that continues to be filled with militants from political parties and family members of politicians, businessmen and powerful oligarchs in Kosovo.
The direct involvement of diaspora professionals in the country’s governance (from the outside as well as from within) would be a great help and would contribute to the diaspora strengthening its ties with Kosovo. There are capable diaspora members who are ready to get involved in the country’s governance; if that governance was more credible, it would create opportunities, promote an environment of integrity and fight nepotism and corruption.
Kosovo’s government should create a special financing program for the involvement of diaspora professionals in governance and decision-making. Such an initiative was already started under the short-lived government of former Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who engaged several diaspora professionals and experts in different fields for his cabinet—mainly justice, economics and foreign policy.
The last chance to strengthen the tie
Although Kosovo has had a diaspora strategy that laid out concrete objectives to increase cooperation, very little has been done to implement it. Until now, the main organized activities for the diaspora have been folkloric concerts and poor cultural activities with no sound benefit for them. In conferences in Kosovo and in the diaspora, the same issues have been discussed for years with no resulting concrete action.
Despite slow progress in addressing diaspora issues, awareness of the role of the diaspora in Kosovo has increased in recent years. There are legal initiatives to facilitate their voting process, and political parties have included diaspora issues in their programs as well. However, these programs still need to be implemented. To make matters worse, there are few diaspora members registered, especially those that could be considered a qualified force and thus invited to contribute in Kosovo.
Except for the financial help which Kosovo needs, the time has come for the diaspora to help through expertise on nation-building, as well.
Finally, the time has come for the diaspora to be a high-priority topic for Kosovo, and the creation of a diaspora fund from Kosovo’s government would be a great help in this direction. The fund could be used for different purposes, such as increasing production of quality books for learning how to read and write in the Albanian language to be distributed in the diaspora. This concrete action would keep the Albanian diaspora children close to the culture, history and language of their origin country and would help in preserving the national identity of our citizens in the diaspora.
Knowledge of the Albanian language and Kosovo’s history and culture from Albanian children abroad would help fight the identity crisis that is an increasing threat among the diaspora. It would also protect them from ideologies of violent extremism, which is one of the most serious threats in Europe. This fund could be very easily created by reallocating a small percentage of the money that enters Kosovo through remittances, or even through other alternative ways.
The diaspora fund could help the recovery of around 700 Albanian cultural associations (formal and informal) as well, which have existed in the diaspora in the past but are completely defunct due to a lack of funding. A mechanism could be created through this fund to coordinate all Albanian cultural associations in the diaspora.
Beyond remittances, the diaspora has great potential to help Kosovo. The time has come for the diaspora to offer more than financial support and use expertise gained as a result of diverse experiences in mainly Western countries to help with nation-building. Now is the time for Kosovo’s institutions to undertake concrete steps to facilitate the diaspora’s involvement in the political life of the country.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.