Heading towards Pristina, my coach crawled through Kosovo’s hills on a far-too-slim road. With each passing lorry, we were squeezed further into the mountain foliage. But, reaching the highway, the road was reassuringly wide, flat, and endless. This left little to do but study the frenzy of roadside development – equally as interminable. Construction projects by the highway are constant and either unfinished or strangely isolated, incongruous with the sparse landscape. There is a sense of inchoateness; a developmental plan without a destination.
To illustrate the point, ponder this: is it odd to have a store selling upmarket furniture on the side of a barren highway, with few houses around? How about five of them, stationed at different, equally lifeless points? All virtually identical and people-less, with no branding?
It felt odd to me on my way to Pristina and I began to wonder whether the incomplete houses, brick skeletons with rebar springing from every raw wall, were a sign of things to come.
The feeling I got on the highway that buildings, that stuff, was being thrown up in feverish incoherence did not completely leave me when I settled in Kosovo’s capital. Pristina’s identity seems unfixed and often unnatural. The rush to develop has begun without certain questions being asked: what does development mean for Kosovo, and how does it get there?
Nestled in the Western Balkans, bordered by Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia, Kosovo is very much a product of its geography. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s recent history is, like its neighbours’, defined by its inter-ethnic, inter-state relations. Yet, whilst its history is tragically regional – following a pattern of conflict and, like Bosnia, attempted genocide after the breakup of Yugoslavia – its capital feels strangely international.
Restaurants in the city centre could have been flown in from New York or London. One of my favourite haunts, a cat-themed café called Dit’ e Nat’ (‘Day and Night’), features a Bob Dylan print explaining the artificiality of nature, a poster for Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and David Bowie tracks on the sound system. Diners can pick English-language volumes off the shelf and read with a latte or a local lager whilst stroking the resident feline. Live music plays past dusk and into the night (hence the name).
In the streets, countless US flags spill from windows and hang out on clothes lines in the street. One American flag floods the south-facing wall of the national Assembly building, framing Kosovo’s red, white, and blue pledge that it ‘will always be grateful’ to the United States.
This pledge has to do with Kosovo’s aforementioned recent history. During the 1990s, the paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fought back against Serbian repression of Albanians. From 1998-99, the KLA and Serbian forces engaged in a brutal conflict, marred by atrocities committed on both sides – and for which both sides felt they had a justification. NATO intervened on the side of the KLA with the backing of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The results were, among other things, NATO victory and, by 2008, independence for Kosovo. That independence, however, goes unrecognised by many countries (Serbia included of course).
But the flags, along with Bill Clinton Boulevard and Tony Blair Street, are understandable tributes to people and powers that the Kosovars believe delivered them independence. Meanwhile, the cutting-edge aesthetics of Pristina’s eateries were clearly not adopted in celebration of NATO intervention. The war displaced thousands of Albanian-Kosovars. Amid attempts by the ethnically Serb President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, to exterminate ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia, many migrated to neighbouring countries such as Albania and North Macedonia. Some went to Western Europe, and have now returned to an independent Kosovo, starting businesses with a Western flavour. People have got a taste and the flavour is spreading.
The city’s youth adds to the impact of its cultural imports. A communist campaign of rapid development in Pristina in the mid-20th century led to the destruction of many of the city’s ancient sites. Consequently, there are few signs of Pristina’s heritage outside of the Kosovo Museum and the country’s appetite for Western cultural forms is more pronounced as a result: in Pristina, there is little to counterbalance the fervency to Westernise.
And, despite its host of ancient materials on the first floor, Kosovo Museum’s focus on conflict entrenches the two aspects of Kosovo’s history most visible in Pristina. On the second floor, materials from the 1998-99 war abound in the form of uniforms and weapons: given that much of the living population experienced it, history for Kosovars is personal and violent. It is therefore understandable that the museum should present it as such. But, besides the brutality of war and the heroism of its fighters, the museum presents little in the country’s recent past but salvation by the USA – a point illustrated by the display dedicated to Madeleine Albright. In Kosovo’s historical memory there is, beyond violence, the West. Saying this, only in June Bill Clinton was in Kosovo, taking home the ‘Order of Freedom’ – proof that the US’ impact here is more than memory, it is part of Kosovo’s identity.
In this context, it makes sense that the goal of Pristina’s development, at least culturally, would be to Westernise. But beyond imitation and adulation, the exact meaning of that goal seems unclear and the route to it haphazard.
In Pristina, the destination of the city’s cultural evolution remains unclear. This returns me to the frenetic development along the road to Pristina; the randomness of the construction. It was as though someone were speeding along the highway, erratically distributing the seeds of development from their car window.
And because the road to development is not straight nor signposted like the highway to Pristina, those seeds sprouted into strange, nameless furniture stores in the middle of nowhere.
For Kosovo, it is more than planting the seeds that matters. It is knowing what it wants them to become.
Noah. D. Merrin