Visit to Kosovo in October 2008

This page contains a report I wrote for the Travelers Century Club to share my experiences with fellow members. It was published by the TCC in December 2008 as Info Note 582 entitled Kosovo: the World's Newest Country. My original report is below with the addition of some hyperlinks to aid you in learning more about Kosovo.

Since my report was written, a street in Pristina has been named for President George W. Bush and funds were donated for a statue of President Clinton. As more countries recognize Kosovo, you can keep track of the progress on this wonderful website kosovothanksyou. It has the music to the gorgeous Kosova National Athem.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal expands on several points in my report below. I highly recommend it.

Kosovo: the World's Newest Country

by Donald M. Parrish, Jr.

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo - ruled for centuries by various countries - declared its independence from Serbia, the final chapter in the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The celebrations that night saluted the United States. So far, 51 countries have recognized it. Two of its neighbors, Montenegro and Macedonia did so during my visit. Russia and Serbia lead the opposition to recognition. UNMIK, UN Mission in Kosovo, is in the process of transferring all governing responsibility to the Kosovars.

In October 2008, I spent over a week in Kosovo traveling with a Rotarian who has made 12 visits in the past 4 years. With his contacts we had exceptional access: meeting with the principal of the largest independent high school, lunch with the Rector and assistant Rector of the largest University, meetings with 2 of the 36 mayors in Kosovo, dinners with Rotarians in several cities and even an unplanned introduction to the Minister of Defense and his family. For two days Zekë Çeku, the President of KOTAS (Kosova Tourism Association), accompanied us. We met local people on our own and visited poor farm families. We had a rare chance to understand the thinking of the people.

I observed several things important to report to TCC members.

First, the country is safe - safer than Stockholm according to UN figures. It feels safe. There are KFOR (Kosovo Force) troops from NATO, but they are very relaxed and interesting to talk to. You see them at tourist sites. Kosovars are nice to each other and nice to tourists. Their driving habits are good so you feel safe on the reasonably good highways that are being improved rapidly.

Second, the country is easy to visit. There are flights from Budapest (Malev) and Vienna (Austrian) to Pristina. Kosovo is roughly 80 miles square, a plain ringed by mountains. There are 2,000,000 people and 6 major cities. No visas are required for US citizens. English, the third official language after Albanian and Serbian, is widely spoken by young people and people in tourism.

Third, the country is affordable with low wage rates. So independent travelers with no prior plans could negotiate with taxis to visit the country. Kosovo uses the Euro as its currency. It costs about 50 Euros to cross the country via taxi. There are reasonable 3 and 4 star hotels. The country seems better off than its GDP numbers would indicate. This is probably due to a large underground economy the Kosovars developed to survive under the Serbs. There are very few beggars.

Fourth, Kosovo is the most pro-American country on the planet! The major street in Pristina, the capital, is named for President Clinton. Presidents Clinton and Bush are as highly regarded in Kosovo as Presidents Washington and Lincoln are in the USA. Several people on the street as well as government officials expressed their thanks to me for what America did for their independence. This feeling is heart-felt and widespread. All Kosovars credit the USA for their independence.

Fifth, and this was quite a surprise, Kosovo is a secular country that is nominally Muslim. Based on the way that young women are poured into their blue jeans, few TCC members would guess that Kosovo is Muslim. Further investigation reveals that many Kosovars have only been to a mosque once or twice in their lifetimes. Islam was imposed in the 19th century on a country that was Christian. There are many mosques and in Prizren you will hear the call to prayer in the mornings, yet Kosovo is the most secular and tolerant Muslim country that I have visited.

Sixth, you will be amazed by the massive amounts of new construction. There is very little damage remaining from the 1998-1999 war. There are a number of memorials to the 16,000 killed. Many Kosovars had to flee during the war or were pushed out at gunpoint by the Serbs. It is a mystery how all this construction can be afforded. My conclusion is that much of the construction is being financed by the large diaspora of Kosovars in Europe and America for patriotic and investment reasons. With low wage rates, construction funds go a long way. There is a dynamic of progress.

Finally, the people of Kosovo made my visit special. After being oppressed for centuries, they are seizing the chance to build their own country. There is a feeling that they are in it together - a feeling we seem to be losing in America. This is a traditional society with strong family ties. I talked to several Americans who bonded with the Kosovars and who have moved there to help them.

What are the problems? There is high unemployment. There are minor electrical power outages, but generator backup is the norm. The country is 92% Albanian; most of the Serbs are in an enclave north of the river that flows thru Mitrovica. Serbia continues to fight in the UN to get Kosovo back, but the European Union has invested its prestige and countless funds to make Kosovo a successful country. I expect the EU to admit both Serbia and Kosovo as members at some point in the future. So one of the advantages of visiting Kosovo is that it will be a country in the news for years. Since Albania and Kosovo have had different recent histories, I expect them to remain separate countries.

What is there to visit? In Pristina, highlights include the statue to Mother Teresa, the University, the National Library, Parliament, Bill Clinton Avenue, the archeological museum and Germina Park. Near Pristina the major attractions are: the historic 14th century monastery of Gracanica and Kosovo Polje, "the blackbird field" where the famous battle in 1389 was fought. There the Serbs and Albanians lost to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish leader, Sultan Murad, is buried there in a mosque.

Prizren with an old fort overlooking its river and ancient mosques is filled with the legacy of Illyrian, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, and Serbs. It preserves the atmosphere of the Ottoman period. I consider it a must-see part of Kosovo. Be sure to visit the League of Prizren Museum. Prizren is a great place to walk and you can see snow covered mountains most of the year.

In Western Kosovo near Peja sights include the 14th century Decani Monastery with its fresco paintings. The monk who escorted us was 6 feet 10 inches. There are the kullas (stone farmhouses) to visit and in Istog a unique hotel that is a trout farm. Rugova Canyon is one of the best places to hike and see the fall colors. One sight that I have not seen anywhere is a church that was "saved" from the Ottoman Turks by the local people who created a huge hill to bury it. It is still buried. In Rahovec, we visited the Stone Castle Vineyards and Winery and sampled some good wine.

In the north, in the city of Mitrovica, I was privileged to see the charter ceremony for the sixth and newest Rotary chapter in Kosovo. Over 200 people attended. The festivities included speeches, gifts, and 3 separate sopranos singing opera or folk songs. The highlight was a pas de deux by locally trained ballet dancers that received synchronized clapping. The part of Kosovo north of the river in Mitrovica is a Serbian enclave administered by UNMIK. We drove thru it and it seems to lack the economic dynamics of the rest of Kosovo. The EU will help resolve this enclave's future.

For more tourism details see Kosovo by Gail Warrander and Verena Knaus.

Now is an excellent time to visit Kosovo. It is safe, affordable and interesting. It is a rare opportunity to see a new country developing in real time. Frankly it is inspiring to experience.