The new car dealership on a main road in Pristina, the capital of the Republic of Kosovo, glistens in the evening sun. The Volkswagen logo hangs over the entrance like the promise of a better consumer world. Yet there is not a single customer inside.
“Business is doing very badly this year,” said VW and Skoda dealer Baki Abdullahu. “There is a great void in our country. People aren’t expecting anything anymore.”
It’s a typical scene in Europe’s newest country.
Once part of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008. Only after a bloody civil war, which cost thousands of lives, was the Albanian majority able to break away from their overpowering neighbor. But independence came at a high cost.
“The war destroyed many businesses, some beyond repair,” said Samir Krasniqi, president of the Kosovan-German trade association.
The chances of asylum status being granted and being allowed to stay in Germany are slim. Most Kosovans are deported.
The risk of further conflict remains. Serbia still officially considers Kosovo an autonomous province, whose borders are not definite. Likewise, Greece, Spain and Russia have not recognized Kosovo as an independent country. United Nations troops are still trying to prevent violence between the Albanian majority and Serbian minority there.
Broken businesses and the threat of war are just two of the reasons why tens of thousands of Kosovans have packed their bags in the hope of a better life outside the tiny Balkan state. A wave of emigration started last winter and continued this spring, stoked by people-smugglers who promised jobs in central Europe.
According to Kosovan estimates, between 50,000 and 80,000 people sought asylum in central Europe last winter alone – all from a country with a population of just 1.7 million.
For most Kosovans, the promised land is Germany, though Switzerland and Austria are also popular. People in Pristina say smugglers charge about €2,000, or $2,175, to take hopeful immigrants to Central Europe, via Serbia and Hungary.
But the chances of asylum status being granted and being allowed to stay in Germany are slim. Most are deported.
“Every week, planes from Germany land here in Pristina bringing Kosovans back,” said a diplomat with expert knowledge of Kosovo.
It is not just poor people wanting to leave Balkan countries.
“The bad thing is: The middle classes, who actually have good jobs, also want to leave,” said a foreign expert.
Car dealer Mr. Baki is familiar with the problem. Recently one of his young employees stopped coming to work after setting out for Germany. He didn’t tell his boss because he was ashamed of his decision to leave Kosovo. Even Mr. Baki has thought about leaving.
“In the last year and a half, there has not been a week when I haven’t thought about returning to Germany,” said the VW dealer, who got his master tradesman’s diploma in the southern German town of Calw.
He has an advantage that most in Kosovo don’t have. As the son of a migrant worker – his father worked in Germany in the 1970s – he has a German passport.
“We must develop the values of a democratic society, which we have never had. Our role model is Germany.”
His countrymen need a visa just to travel to Germany, or to enter other E.U. states.
The German embassy in Pristina issues 35,000 visas per year, out of some 200,000 applications. Appointments can only be booked online. According to inside sources in Pristina, up to 1,000 appointments have been booked within four minutes.
“Kosovans feel like they are living in a ghetto,” said a diplomat.
The economic situation in this small country is miserable. After the painstaking and difficult formation of a government, reforms failed to materialize. Legal uncertainty, corruption and nepotism are still big problems.
“We must develop the values of a democratic society, which we have never had,” said an official in Kosovo’s foreign ministry. “Our role model is Germany.”
But Kosovo is far behind its role model. Officially, economic figures don’t look that bad. The gross domestic product increases by about 4 percent annually, public debt is comparatively low and the banking system is considered resilient.
But Safet Gerxhaliu, president of the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce, does not believe it’s that good. He is convinced the government is “using false figures to make people believe there is positive development.”
The unemployment rate is supposedly around 30 percent – nobody knows exactly.
The big problem is lack of foreign investment. Not a single German company listed on the leading DAX stock exchange has increased its investment in Kosovo. No wonder: The country cannot guarantee a stable supply of electricity or water.
The political and business elite in Kosovo place their hopes in Europe, and especially Germany.
“Kosovo and the entire Western Balkan region have only one destination – the European Union and NATO,” said foreign minister Hashim Thaci.
Last year, a conference of Western Balkan states was held in Berlin to discuss such matters as increased integration and E.U. membership. A second Balkan conference will take place in Vienna at the end of August and will be attended by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
“Confidence in Kosovo is very low.”
Expectations in Kosovo are sky high. The hope is that at least an association agreement with the European Union can be signed. But the government in Pristina also wants visa-free travel for its citizens – an important step against migratory pressure, according to the foreign ministry.
Even German diplomats and international organizations consider the abolishment of visa requirements overdue.
“For economic reasons, it would be very helpful if visa requirements were lifted,” said the World Bank’s Jan-Peter Olters in Pristina.
He compared Germany’s position as Kosovans’ dream country to Germans’ infatuation with the United States during the difficult post-war years of the fledgling Federal Republic.
“Gjermani! Super, super!” said a driver in Pristina in broken German, a big smile on his face.
Many Kosovans learn German through television channels RTL, ProSieben, ARD and ZDF, which can be received everywhere in the country.
There is also a great Kosovan diaspora in Germany, with more than a quarter million already living there. Every fourth Kosovan family has a family member in Germany, estimates a diplomat. When they come back to visit, legends are born of the faraway German paradise.
Mr. Olters said that without visa requirements, Kosovans could see their dream country first-hand – including its shortcomings. The chances of that actually happening are not high right now. Many Syrian refugees are coming to Central Europe via the Balkans, and the European Union is sealing itself off. But that won’t stop the people of Kosovo from trying.
“There is an extremely young population with no prospects in Kosovo,” explained Wolfgang Lueghammer, an economist at Wiener Kontrollbank.
Mr. Thaci, the foreign minister, is convinced that the mass emigration has stopped after a government campaign to dispel the myth of jobs promised by smugglers. Experienced diplomats, however, do not rule out a new wave of emigration.
“The bad economic climate, the government’s lack of investment activity and frustration at visas not being liberalized are the deciding factors,” said one E.U. representative in Pristina.
“Confidence in Kosovo is very low,” said Mr. Olters.
Hope, as many see it in Kosovo, only exists elsewhere.
Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org