Sunday, March 22, 2009, Sunday Business Post – By Conor Creighton
Last month, Kosovo celebrated its first year of existence as a sovereign state, and the party lasted for three days. But, independence from Serbia aside, the youngest country in the world doesn’t have much to dance about.
To start with, only 54 states recognise Kosovo’s claim to independence, and its economy is highly dependent on international props and remittance cheques. More worryingly, the UN recently reported that cocaine was now entering Europe through Kosovo, complementing the existing heroin and human trafficking trade routes in the country.
As for jobs, they’re thin on the ground and, with most of Kosovo’s industries on their knees from a lack of investment and modernisation, that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.
The outlook is bleak. Tales of corruption involving carrier bags full of dollars, high to ranking politicians and by-the-hour escorts travel through the bars and coffee shops of the capital Pristina. And the only pedestrian street in the city, Mother Teresa Street, has been built, unbuilt and rebuilt so many times that locals maintain they could have put a Kosovar on the moon for much the same price.
But while Kosovo may be lacking many things, one thing it does have is an abundantly young population. Over 70 per cent of the country’s people haven’t yet celebrated their 30th birthday, and it’s from within this group that the most dynamic and exciting attempts at nation building are occurring.
Networking in Pristina is a lot like a game of dominoes. If you meet one creative person in the morning, by the time evening draws near you’ll have met them all. The city is no bigger than Cork and its youth culture functions similarly to a collective, with focal points in half a dozen bars and venues in different parts of town. Here, away from the politics of their parents, young Kosovar artists and entrepreneurs scheme big.
‘‘Pristina is the ultimate punk city,” says Toton, a local music producer regarded by many as the person responsible for putting Kosovo and Kosovar techno on the musical map. ‘‘We have the politics, economic problems, social problems, not-so-peace-loving neighbours, lots of mud and lots of alcohol. It’s the perfect environment for creating.”
He’s not lying about the mud. Kosovo is built upon a rich collection of minerals and metals. In Tito’s time, the country was mined extensively, sending tonnes of dust and particles high into the atmosphere. Today, whenever it rains, the water that falls carries a dirty sediment that sticks to everything.
Toton is a resident DJ at Pristina’s most famous nightclub, Spray. He’s the head of PUG Music, a type of artists’ union that attempts to preserve local musicians’ livelihoods, and he is also one of the few Kosovar DJs to have been granted a visa to play abroad.
He has spun discs in some of the biggest clubs in Europe, but he doesn’t even have a record player in his own home. ‘‘Everybody shares and borrows equipment here. There’s absolutely no way we could afford to buy our own,” he says.
Isolated by visa and financial restrictions, young Kosovars have developed interdependence, like a family in the midst of a crisis. When a band play a gig, they have to bring along every piece of equipment they can scrounge from their friends. Some venues only provide a roof and a bar, and most of the time, if they’re lucky, electricity.
The same goes for gallery spaces. Rron Qena is an abstract artist who is known not only for his high-quality output, but also for defacing his own paintings. He installed a light in a damp cellar beneath a bar, hung up a few canvasses and was in business. You have to knock on a metal door to get in, and it’s as cold as a freezer, but it does the trick, and the fact that the paint perishes fast in these extreme conditions motivates Rron to sell his pieces as quickly as possible. Berna owns a bar called Llocks, which translates as mud; young Kosovars are anything but pretentious. She opened it two years ago, and it soon became the place for young musicians to get debut shows and for young artists to display.
Rron has a couple of his paintings on the wall; one of them, customarily, has a big chunk sliced out of the corner. As well as the bar, Berna is also responsible for the day-today running of a hip young station called Urban FM.
Berna, or Bassface as people call her on the radio, has been involved at the station for over five years. In that time it has been the only private station in Kosovo. ‘‘I’m amazed it’s never gone bust,” Berna says. ‘‘But we worked for a long time for free to keep it going. And our listeners are very patient – they don’t change channels when there’s a blackout.”
She gets requests and messages relayed to the station via mail and text, with the majority coming from Germany and the US. The Kosovar diaspora is close to half a million in number, and Urban FM provides them with one way of staying in touch with home.
Mainstream international news stations don’t have many positive things to say about Kosovo, but Berna’s news on parties, gigs and events shows that, beneath the political ineptitude, the country’s young people, at least, are getting things done.
Besa was part of the original diaspora. She moved to the US and found work with the New Yorker magazine, and for a time she lived in Manhattan and shared desks with the city’s literati. But in the end, she decided to go home, and returned to Pristina before Christmas with the intention of launching her own publication.
‘‘I want it to reach all areas of Kosovo, the villages and the small communities, and for once to have something of real quality here,” she says. It’s hard to imagine someone trading Park Avenue for the lopsided tarmac pits that constitute Pristina’s high streets and footpaths; harder still to imagine a young writer giving up the opportunity to be edited by David Remnick in order to try her hand at publishing in the poorest place in Europe. But Berna loves her country, and like many of her peers, seems compelled to try to get things done.
It would be wrong to suggest that the newly-installed Kosovar government is not helping the country’s situation, but more often than not it gets it wrong. The Ministry for Trade, for example, spent €500,000 on getting 1980s pop star and former Page 3 girl Samantha Fox, an Abba tribute band and a team of Elvis impersonators to perform at a one-day festival intended to encourage the national identity.
Some people have rather excitedly suggested that Kosovo is the region’s Kuwait, and that the huge coalmines in the country are the key to kick-starting the economy. Swiss and British mining companies have been looking into the viability of restructuring the old mines and exploiting new ones that may lead to oil. Eastern Europeans looking for an alternative to getting their energy from Russia may also be persuaded to invest in Kosovo.
But for the moment, average monthly salaries are less than €200, and nothing investors could do in the short term would bridge the gap in disposable income between Kosovar artists and their western European peers.
‘‘I guess it is in our, and generally in the Balkan, culture to improvise,” says Toton. ‘‘I remember people making electric guitars or amps, and rather unique-sounding drums from floorboards.”
But improvising and making do with patchwork equipment can only go on for so long, and Toton fears that all the hard work put in by underground producers might be lost unless the government makes stronger efforts to address the infrastructural problems in the country.
‘‘We’re probably the only electronic music producers to make electronic music without electricity,” he laughs. ‘‘But seriously, the restrictions on what we can and can’t do are so bad that I worry that our whole scene might vanish.”
Toton wrote a song called Coca-Cola in response to the situation in Kosovo. It’s a spoof piece in which he begs the owners of the corporation to buy the country, rebrand it with their name and do whatever they want to it – so long as they keep the power on. As any Irish musician knows, making it big in your home country is not enough, and to be successful you have to take your music to a wider audience. But that isn’t too easy for Kosovars. The country’s visa regime is based around a ‘‘proof of return’’ agreement, so young DJs with no track record of regular employment, savings or family obligations look very bad on paper. Most Kosovar artists fall victim to a visa rejection at some stage or another.
Being allowed to join the Schengen territories would be a step in the right direction towards relaxing travel restrictions, but so long as Slovakia, Spain, Cyprus, Greece and Romania refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence that won’t happen. However, it’s likely that some day, these five reluctant EU members will have to acknowledge their new neighbours. Kosovo already uses the euro, and France, Germany and Britain all want the country to join the EU.
Strangely enough, one place Kosovars can travel to is Serbia, as in Serbian eyes it is still the same country. Toton was one of the first Kosovar DJs to play in Serbia after the war; his Serbian promoters felt there was enough of a threat to post a bodyguard by his side for the duration of his visit.
Alban Muja is an art activist who accepted a residency in the Serbian town of Novi Sad only weeks after Nato shelling had stopped. He asked for sign printing equipment and cheekily replaced all the Serblan guage road signs with Albanian ones – before the war, they’d been in both languages. He made headlines in the Serbian papers, and returned home a hero.
Alban is one of the few Kosovar artists who gets out oft he country often, and his art has taken him to the US and most European countries. The last time he returned home, crossing the disputed UN-controlled border in northern Kosovo, the Serb soldiers on duty accused him of being a CIA agent because he had so many stamps in his passport. ‘‘It’s important to get out every four months,” he says, but he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
Likatek is another electronic musician based in Kosovo. He has had to turn down invitations to play festivals in Italy and elsewhere in Europe because he can’t satisfy the visa requirements. ‘‘It can set you back and make you depressed, because you spend so long trying to get international exposure, and then can’t take the opportunities when they arrive,” he says.
Confounding the predictions of many, Kosovo has not imploded since it won independence. The black market continues to thrive, because the alternative legal market is still not out of the starting blocks, and promised investment is not materialising as quickly as hoped. To call from abroad, you have to use Monaco’s international dialling code, as Kosovo doesn’t yet have its own code, while the road into Pristina from the airport is so bad that it shakes the fillings loose in your mouth.
But the people have got a taste for peace. Toton fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army, as did many of the other artists in Pristina today. ‘‘People here have had enough of wars,” he says. ‘‘1999 was just the most recent; before that we had Yugoslavia’s prison democracy, the Nazis, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Apart from this bloody history, we’re happy, tolerant people.”
Young Kosovars go to the mosque with raging hangovers and cite Mother Teresa as an inspirational hero. They look on their past with a sense of emotional balance and cheeky humour – one performer who lost his leg in a bungled operation goes under the name DJ Legoff.
The country has no shortage of creativity and drive. What it needs now is exposure, investment and a shot in front of a bigger audience. If modern Europe ever needed a poster boy for religious, social harmony in a young creative society, it could do a lot worse than look here.