50 cent, emergency generators and contraband tobacco

Article published on Jan. 2, 2008
From the magazine
Article published on Jan. 2, 2008
With unemployment at more than 40%, the black market economy and a lack of political clarity acting as weights around the country's neck, the Kosovar market is searching for a way into the wider world and a definitive boom in its growth levels

After midday prayers at the historic Carshi Mosque, crowds of people bustle constantly around the entrance to the bazaar in the centre of Pristina. Cars, pedestrians and people carrying merchandise share a pavement full of puddles, which has been severely punished with the passing of time. In all directions, vendors are selling a huge variety of products at top speed: vegetables, spicy pepper sauce, feta cheese, and all kinds of product with the Albanian 'brand': flags, biros, etc. These businessmen claim to have the best prices in the city: a kilo and a half of bananas for 1 euro, a kilo of oranges for 80 cents, and even a T-shirt bearing the Albanian national emblem, the double-headed eagle, for 3 euros. But what really catches one's attention is the sale of contraband tobacco from western Europe under the indifferent eyes of the local police.

In the opinion of Bedri Ahmeti, a shoeseller with ample experience in the market, the black market economy is a trend on the decline. 'Just after the war, we had a period of great benefits because we could import whatever we liked from Turkey since there was nothing in the way of law or control. Now, with the introduction of a value-added tax, the need to obtain import permits and the growing control of public powers, business isn't quite so good for us'. With a certain amount of irony, Ahmeti concludes that it was easier to bribe the Serbian police than it is the police of today.

'People need to be educated in paying taxes'

Away from the bazaar, the feeling is quite the opposite. Dozens of improvised shops are strategically situated near to the seat of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK - the interim civilian administration). According to the European commission's economic adviser in Pristina, Freek Janmaat, 'the importance of the black market economy in Kosovo is enormous. You only need to look at the over-estimated figure of 45% of the active population being unemployed to understand the size of the black market economy'. And the fact is that many citizens prefer not to formalise their situation in order to keep on receiving subsidies. For this reason, the Dutch diplomat emphasises the need to implement 'reforms in the legal and fiscal systems' to strengthen observance of the law and, as a result, economic growth.

Akan Ismaili is the young founder of Ipkonet, Kosovo's first internet service provider. He shares Janmaat's view: 'Over more than ten years Kosovars have become used to not paying taxes. We have to change people's mentality, teach them to pay taxes and respect the rules,' he says, from the watchtower that is his modern office in the tower of Kosovo's Radio Television. Ismaili's words take on an importance, coming as they do from the mouth of the person who holds the reins of the first internet service provider, which will soon be the second mobile telephone network in Kosovo, thanks to the support of foreign investor Slovenije Telecom.

With exultant optimism, the director of Ipkonet stresses that although the risks could be high, foreign investors value the return on their investments and the great opportunities that the country offers. According to Ismaili, 'after losing the revolutions and living in one of the most isolated countries during the 1990s, Kosovars want to be a part of the whole world.' As proof of this psychological opening-up, the entrepreneur points to the high numbers of Kosovar homes equipped with the internet.

The intermittent lights of the economy

Walking through the streets surrounding the UNMIK building, the profusion of satellite dishes, the growing number of clothes shops carrying Western brands, art galleries and designer bars worthy of any great European capital city all seem to be signs of a certain level of growth in the country, thanks in part to income from Pristina's international community. But it is not only due to this.

According to the latest report from the European commission, for the first time since the war, economic growth has been based 'on internal consumption and not on external aid or gifts sent from the diaspora,' in the words of Freek Janmaat. The Kosovar economy grew throughout 2006 by 3% while the level of foreign aid fell, settling at 20.5% of GDP, according to UNMIK's 2007 report on economic perspectives for 2007.

Nevertheless, the presence in those same streets of generators to provide guarantees in the face of periodic power cuts, problems with the water supply, the precarious nature of the infrastructure and of public services, and high unemployment bring one back to the day-to-day reality in Kosovo, eight years after the UN began its administration of the territory.

Young people and women suffer the consequences of the weakness of the Kosovar labour market. According to Freek Janmeet, they will need to 'see whether the 35, 000 - 40,000 of young people who join the labour market every year can be absorbed by the Kosovar economy in the next five or six years.' This figure is particularly worrying if we take into consideration the fact that young people represent 50% of the Kosovar age pyramid.

The low level of employment is, for Luljeta Vuniqi, executive director of the Kosovar Centre for Gender Studies, another of the most alarming factors in the Kosovar economy, since according to the feminist activist, '80% of the unemployed are women.' Both Janmaat and Vuniqi agree on the need to make the educational system more robust, and, in particular, studies at intermediate and higher level as a way of offering future opportunities to young Kosovars.

Whatever happens, a good part of the future in Kosovo is being illuminated once and for all in a definitive statute and through the promotion of good government of the country. Only then will foreign investors have the necessary confidence to invest on a large scale in Kosovo. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Pristina will have to live out the illusion of a better future through initiatives such as the concert given on 17 November by the American rap artist 50 Cent in Pristina's football stadium, financed by Ipkonet.

Pristinali enjoying 50 cent's performance at the Stadiumi i Qytetit (Photo: ©Alban Bujari)

In-text photos: Pristina market (©Andrea Decovich/ photocast.org), satellite city (©Nabeelah Shabbir), 50 cent and his crowd of fans (©Alban Bujari/ lightstalkers.org/alban_bujari)

Many thanks to Paulina Sypniewska