May 26th, 2006

First Impressions of Kosovo

The past 48 hours have been like the gallon challenge; it’s tough to keep it all down and digest. I’ve been bouncing around in a monkey suit (why do we know what that means, anyway?) meeting not just your garden variety of people. In chronological order starting from the London Gatwick airport to the present moment in my Pristina, Kosovo Hotel I’ve met General Wesley Clark (also a former democratic presidential candidate), a bright and promising university student who has a rags to “hopeful prosperity” future, the dean (and former PC volunteer) of the nationally prestigious American University of Kosovo, three “westernized” and industrious owners of a successful management consulting firm in Pristina, a convicted then later acquitted national hero and Commander of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a hotel owner full of enthusiasm who plans to open a private university, and an impressive multi-cultural lawyer who works, teaches, and opines. These meetings/encounters sometimes just result in a handshake as in the general’s case, and other times I get a whole lot of airtime to ask questions as in a fortunate meeting with one of the consulting firm’s owners.

Fresh off my two years of grassroots development work in Honduras, I relish the opportunity to see Kosovo from the top down. Naturally, I cannot resist comparing the two. Before I get to my thoughts, let me stress the word first in first impressions. Be well aware than I’m relating two years of grassroots experience in Honduras to two days of top-down Hotel living experience here in Kosovo. With that disclaimer to the side, let’s get down to business.

Kosovo seems to be light-years ahead of Honduras in many ways. Let’s tackle poverty first. If poverty is a broken bone, than Honduras got its bones shattered in a collision with a Mack truck, and Kosovo is that jerk in the hospital bed beside him whining about the pain from his broken foot in a sling. I’m not saying they aren’t poor here, but from what I’ve seen it just isn’t the same.

More importantly, however, is the comparison in regards to safety and security. Honduras is dangerous, and Kosovo is pretty darn safe. I have never felt threatened here in Pristina, and it takes all of about one minute roaming the streets of Tegucigalpa for even Rambo to realize he shouldn’t have left his grenade launcher at home. By the way, I have eaten salads and accidentally drunken the tap water and I’m still standing (knock on wood). So I’m not just talking about crime when I say safety.

Just because safety and security has been at least temporarily put under control doesn’t mean the road to development has been permanently paved. I remember being in middle school thinking that if I could just get my acne under control, I’d be a pretty damn attractive young man, only to discover later that with the acne finally gone, I had a big nose. Developmentally speaking, I think it’s kind of like that for Kosovo. Corruption, incompetence, and inexperience seem to be Kosovo’s big nose. Just so we are keeping track, Honduras is not only in Pinocchio-type need of rhinoplasty, but also a Dumbo sized dose of Accutane as well.

One key difference, perhaps the key difference, between Honduras and Kosovo solving their respective development problems is passion. Seven years removed from a civil war and just months away from (probable) true independence, the Kosovars have a fire in their belly. There is doubt about whether they will make it after the international community packs up and leaves, but there is also hope. From what I can see, people with ideas, ideals, and persistence are the fighting minority: but they are still fighting. In Honduras, those guys got whacked years ago. The rest will get around to being constructive mañana.

My first impression is that of a sense of urgency here in Kosovo. Kosovars who know in what direction the country must go are the people that must keep swinging (and show others in what direction to throw their punches as well). Criticizing the international community for its many shortcomings is an all too tempting distraction for Kosovars to get the job done. It’s so tempting because the complaints are valid. However, Kosovo is one shining example among the muck that the international community normally creates in the aftermath of dropped bombs. Kosovars themselves would admit that never in their wildest dreams would they have guessed ten years ago they’d be in such an opportune position that the one they’re in today. They owe it to the imperfect international community and ultimately, more importantly, to themselves to seize the opportunity now to make things right.


P.S. All opinions subject to change within the next 48 hours.