30 May 2006

Capital of potholes and restaurants

By Neil MacDonald and Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 30 May 2006

Opposition newspapers slam him for the “Izmet Beqiri holes” that pock the downtown road surfaces of Kosovo’s capital city, Pristina. Mr Beqiri, mayor for the past three years, retorts that he is too strapped for cash to take care of basic maintenance, let alone pave the other 80 per cent of the municipality’s roads. “Simply fixing the streetlights, which were all smashed up before, has been an achievement,” he says.

His annual budget for capital investment is only €9m. The municipality of Tirana, capital of neighbouring Albania, reportedly raises nearly four times that amount each year between fund transfers and tax revenues, although the population there is less than double Pristina’s.


Tirana’s reforming mayor, flamboyant artist and ex-culture minister Edi Rama, has won international acclaim for brightening up drab ex-communist urban facades. Mr Beqiri says he admires those achievements and longs for the same freedom to address similar social and environmental problems.

But here, the municipal organs are intertwined, financially and administratively, with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the executive arm of the UN protectorate in the mainly ethnic-Albanian province that broke away from Serbian control seven years ago.

Powerful financing options increasingly used by other south-east European cities, such as municipal bonds, are unavailable as long as Kosovo lacks the permanent, predictable status of a sovereign country.

Additionally, the unassuming Mr Beqiri – a loyalist of the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) who formerly managed public swimming pools – shows some reluctance to tamper with his home city, where he has lived for 40 of his 41 years. “Pristina is beautifulin its own way,” he says.

His top priority as mayor, he says, is to impose some order on haphazard growth. The municipal authorities recently adopted a General Urban Plan, the first of its kind in Pristina, outlining a comprehensive vision for the next 16 years, including three concentric ring roads to ease traffic flow around seven main districts.

In the past, only a few upscale pockets showed evidence of planning. One of these is Pejton City, the central commercial and diplomatic quarter named for the racy 1960s hit US television series “Peyton Place”.

Josip Broz Tito, second world war partisan leader and Yugoslavia’s president for life, had a flair for the theatrical, but he also understood how to balance conflicting interests. Residents still sometimes cite street names from the Tito period – a mix of Serb, Albanian and communist war heroes and literary figures – in place of the recently posted names from Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian liberation struggle. Serb-nationalist signage put up under Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s ruler in the 1990s, never took hold, whereas two of the latest street names – Mother Teresa Street and Bill Clinton Boulevard – are accepted.

Just as Constantinople became “Stamboul” and hence Istanbul, some locals say that Kosovo’s capital started out as Prima Justiniana, an episcopal centre founded by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. But nothing comes easy for Pristina: neighbouring Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, and a nearby southern Serbian city, Leskovac, both lay claim to the same origin.

Later Byzantine documents refer to Pristina only as a “village.” Aside from Roman artefacts in the museum and some prehistoric house foundations uncovered on the outskirts, the city’s heritage is most evident in the two Ottoman mosques dating to the 1400s in the “old town,” which otherwise contains late nineteenth and early twentieth century landmarks.

Nearer the city centre, the buildings tell of Kosovo’s more recent history. Next to the university library stands a large, unfinished Orthodox church, an attempt by Serbs under Mr Milosevic’s leadership to assert their dominance.

Although most of the Serbs fled in 1999, Kosovo must now prove its readiness for independence as a tolerant, multi-ethnic society, say United Nations mediators in the ongoing status negotiations with Serbia. Patches of fresh white paint on the church’s otherwise unpainted dome show where the authorities covered anti-Serb slogans.

While the independence war made the local society ethnically uniform, ethnic Albanian refugees from around the war-torn province packed into the capital, whose population swelled from around 250,000 to nearly 500,000, according to Mr Beqiri. At the same time, the internationals – aid workers, consultants and UN administrators – brought a new, multicultural element that the mayor says has become one of Pristina’s greatest assets.

The striking youthfulness of the locals – around 70 per cent are under 30 years of age – could one day be a demographic time bomb, but for now it livens up the streets and provides strong human resources.

English is almost universally spoken in the servicessector, and expatriate westerners express surprise at the range of good restaurants around town. “It’s not so bad, although there’s no classical music,” says a western European banker who flies home to his family about every three weeks. Another expatriate, a hard-bitten UN administrator, grudgingly calls Pristina “better than Sierra Leone”.

On the downside for the mayor, the high-spending international presence is a magnet for continued rural-urban migration, even though “Pristina is not exempt from any of Kosovo’s problems, including high unemployment”.

As with any centre of post-conflict reconstruction, economists worry about what will happen to Pristina’s flourishing small and medium-sized enterprises when the internationals eventually leave. Officials at the International Monetary Fund, however, say a local middle class has started to blossom, making much of the local services sector self-sustaining.

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