By Thomas Litan
It's been almost two weeks since we returned from Kosovo. I still vividly remember the stunning nature, the vibrant cities, the delicious food, and perhaps most importantly, the warm and hospitable people. It's been almost two weeks since I concluded my first journey into a new world, a world I had never ventured into before. A world where people are optimistic about their future, where they build a new society from the ashes of a bloody conflict, where they find small ways to make a change in the lives of people and connect groups that have grown to despise each other. But also a world which still faces many problems, which leaves certain groups marginalised and excluded from the path forward, which still bears the scars of the past.
We've talked to many inspirational people, who have each found their own way to contribute to the betterment of Kosovo and its citizens. Government officials who believe in a democratic Kosovo, but also local community leaders who bring together opposing groups or advocate for more recognition of the human rights of minorities. I've spoken to people on the street, many of whom are eager to do their bit to help Kosovo, but many of whom are also frustrated at the rates of poverty and unemployment or the rejection by society.
As I said during our last meeting at the lake, Kosovo was - for me at least - just another word on paper. I had read very little about it before the course, although I did know where it was (and found out that many of my friends still do not). In that sense, I can truly say that Peace Lab has changed me forever. I will now associate Kosovo with all I have seen, heard and felt in the 10 days we were there. Perhaps I will return one day, to observe the changes and see whether some ideals have become reality in the newborn state. I do know that I will follow developments in Kosovo with a critical view, but also with all the perspectives I've taken in. First up is visa liberalisation, which I hope will give the Kosovar people their long-desired freedom and opportunities to venture out into the world and see all the places they have until now only heard of.
If I should give Kosovo one message, it's that they should not forget to stop, take a moment and look to themselves. Something I heard at The Ideas Partnership keeps running through my mind: European integration should not be followed by improvements in Kosovo, but should follow those improvements. In other words, instead of focusing on joining the EU (and NATO and the UN) as an ultimately goal, politicians and government leaders should consider improving Kosovo first. There is still widespread corruption, unemployment rates are soaring through the roof in some areas and there is a huge gap between minority protection in the Constitution and the everyday practice these groups face in the streets.
Improving the living conditions of all groups in Kosovo, even (and perhaps especially) the ones that at this moment feel left behind, may ultimately yield better results than the current relentless push for membership of international organisations. The EU is no paradise, and last Thursday has shown what the consequences can be if the critical voice of a minority is ignored long enough and there are media and influences present which exploit this disappointment. I have seen how hard Kosovars work for their future and the future of their young next generation, For their sake, I wish Kosovar leaders would always remember to look behind them and see what is happening. A strong internal Kosovo may lead to a strong external Kosovo and thus adequate membership.
All in all, a life-changing experience. Thanks to everyone who came along and shared in this adventure with me!