In February, with U.S. backing, Kosovo declared its independence—nine years after NATO went to war to end Serbia's thuggish behavior in the province. Shortly after Kosovo hoisted its new national flag, Russia, Serbia's patron, warned (in the words of its foreign minister) that the theory of secession used to strip away Kosovo had "created a precedent" applicable elsewhere. Now, in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Georgia—supposedly for the protection of separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—it's a good time to pause and ask, was Kosovo worth it?
A recent visit to the tiny country underscores how difficult life can be for a microstate. The good news is that Kosovo has a young pro-Western population that speaks English, has strong tech skills and is excited at the thought of creating a new government.
But there is plenty of bad news. The unemployment rate for young people is 60 percent. The landlocked, mountainous country has a long growing season and could serve as a garden for Europe, but it lacks any transport beyond two-lane roads, a rusting rail line and expensive air links. The current prime minister, Hashim Thaci—a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)—promises to build a real highway to next-door Albania in five years, but that's hardly the best path to the outside world. Meanwhile, the electricity frequently shuts off for hours at a time, even in the capital, Pristina, and the construction of a World Bank-financed power plant has been slowed by quarrels over who will supply the coal.
Pristina bustles with restaurants supported by a large population of international personnel whose spending habits outprice the locals. The roads leading to Kosovo's borders are lined with half-completed brick houses. But these are funded by remittances from young people who've left to work in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Inside the country, the economy is so bad that many fear that unemployed young men will start turning to old-fashioned, illicit forms of cross-border commerce: trafficking in narcotics, weapons or human beings.
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