Two years ago when chilling on the porch of a hostel in Prishtina, capital of Kosovo, with backpackers from all around the world from New Zealand to Brazil, sharing stories and adventures of travelling, a local guy in his early 20s joined in. He was invited by a young German couple, guests of the hostel for the night, who met him through Couchsurfing that morning, when looking for a local guide to show them around in the city. When asked, he explained – in perfect English by the way – his motivation and enthusiasm for meeting new people visiting Kosovo every day: „Holding a Kosovo passport doesn’t give much chance to backpack, so this is the way I travel, meet new people and learn about other places and cultures.”
Although this wasn’t the first (or even the last) time I heard about the visa restrictions in Kosovo, right there, sitting on the porch on that summer night, in the middle of my backpacking trip through the Balkans and wondering where I should move next after 4 years of collage in Ireland, this thought stayed with me.
Seeing the world through the Internet?
Internet is most definitely an increasingly important tool for communication and connecting with the world, but it is probably even more so for the youth in Kosovo. Now they more than ever see how their peers around Europe and the world live, but even though they speak foreign languages and feel European, are too often unable to travel beyond the borders of the Balkans. Visa liberalization has been a long-lasting debate in Kosovo, but it is still to come, leaving Kosovo the only Western-Balkan country without vise-free travel to the European Union. And Kosovar youth are highly connected to the internet with almost 90% of households have Internet accesses at home, and they are also heavy users of social media: in average they spend 3.5 hours per day on the Internet, 80% of which using social media sites.
Now the whole country is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Kosovo’s independence; yet, it is still bittersweet. It is not only the question of whether isolation will ever end for Kosovars, but there are a lot other pressing political and social issues that still to be resolved – from transitional justice to mass unemployment. Regarding that almost everyone has access to the Internet and more than half of the population is under 25 years old (the youngest population in Europe!), one would assume that online platforms play a major role in actively debating for development and social change in the country. Here come some of my reflections about new media and development in Kosovo – what is happening in the youngest country of Europe?
New media for social change in Kosovo
Social media and other new media platforms are actively used to raise awareness among the population and to debate political issues and social injustice. There is a young elite, mainly concentrated in the capital, Prishtina, many of them educated abroad, who are highly engaged in and passionate about current affairs and social issues in the country and are keen to set up and foster initiatives advocating for the development of their young country.
They have recognized the potential of new media to – as Asay (et al) puts it – „reshape discussions and debates within and across groups in a society, changing intergroup relationships and attitudes”
For a great example check out Kosovo2.0 that started out as the very first blogging platform in Kosovo to deepen the society’s understanding of current affairs and engage them in insightful discussion, but has by now evolved into an independent media organization with online platform, print magazine and online social media presence with more than 35,000 followers (keep in mind that we are talking about a country of less than 2 million people!). Besides Albanian it is also available in English and Serbian to cater for wide audiences, both Albanians and Serbians, as well as the growing international community in the region.
Social media is also an increasingly important platform of collective action to mobilize citizens and to organize protests. Although activism is often intertwined with NGOs and the civil sector, the Kosovar public is becoming more active in raising their voices for/against pressing domestic issues, including gender-based violence, LGBTI rights, serious air pollution, mass unemployment, widespread corruption or demanding good public services – and for the first time in the post-war era not for the call of a political party. Even the very first Pride Parade was organized last year!
What does the world know about Kosovo?
However, what is the story, when considering external attention? Visa liberalization is an issue that might have the potential to catch the attention of the international community and to generate international solidarity with the population of this tiny European country deprived of their freedom to travel. Still, little external attention has been given to this issue. So far, Kosovars haven’t yet managed to get their voices across the borders and (apart from a couple of travel blogs) little has hit the international headlines about the country since its independence a decade ago – unless it was about corruption, organised crime or unprecedented out-migration flows.
Kosovo 2.0 has recently published a short video with a clear, easy to follow explanation of the visa liberalization process for Kosovo. It most probably was a hit on target for the local youth – with almost 1000 reactions and more than 500 shares in 3 days (and increasing!) comments reflected frustration and disappointment:
I just want to travel. Is that too much to ask?!!!
Happy independence day bullshit. What does that independence mean?
10y after !? #congrats 🎉
Do not they feel like an angry and disillusioned scream to everyone out there: why doesn’t anybody care?!
And really, isolation works both ways: it might not only mean the lack of chance and possibility to travel and explore the world, but also fighting invisibility and stereotypes. Living in Prishtina I experienced that Kosovars (and especially the youth) are eager to show their land they are so proud of and that is so often misrepresented in the international media. Still, these initiatives to attract external attention remain ad-hoc, inconsistent and even through they are produced in English, they lack any kind of clear indication of a communication strategy, or even a target group.
Even the “Kosovo – the young Europeans” campaign, the government’s nation branding attempt to shatter the image of a poor and war-torn country and promote Kosovo as an integral part of the European community has failed to reach large audiences. The promotional video on YouTube has reached just over 200,000 views in over 8 years, and the campaign’s official Facebook page has slightly over 110,000 followers – let’s be honest, this is somehow slim for an international campaign. But really, have you heard about it?
Kosovo has most definitely come a long way since its declaration of independence 10 years ago, and even though there is still a lot to do, I’m optimistic. The passion, enthusiasm and potential of its young population to grow, develop and be part of the world drives them to continuously and deliberately look for new ways and possibilities – and to show it! If in doubt, visit this year’s DOKU:TECH festival in Prizren and Prishtina that brings together world-class speakers and a wide range of audiences to discuss issues around technology and the Internet, or – as Abetare Gojani noted –
“digital security, surveillance and privacy, open source, data and open knowledge, social entrepreneurship, business and other related topics. Activists, hackers, media theorists, entrepreneurs and journalists from around the world will explore ideas and concepts on how to use technology to empower our everyday social difficulties.”
See you there!
Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.