Kosovo, home of thugs and traffickers? No longer. The country, subject ethnic cleansing only 13 years ago, is positioning itself as the new, cool Balkan country. Its point man is Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi, a 33-year-old who owns a trendy café, likes comics – and brought 50 Cent to Pristina after the Balkan Wars. Meet the New Balkan Man.
Four years ago, Kosovo didn’t exist. Today the Balkan country is at the center of an international conflict, with Russia accusing it of aiding Syrian rebels. That’s a smear campaign, says Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi: Kosovo may be poor, but the economy is growing fast -- and Kosovo has the best macchiato.
Russia says that Syrian rebels are receiving military training in Kosovo. Are they?
In no case, at no time has any militant received training in Kosovo. Regarding Syria: we were approached by Syrians who were returning from the summit of the Friends of Syria in Istanbul. They just came for a bunch of meetings with civil society in Kosovo and a couple of ministers. But the propaganda machine in various countries seized on those meetings and made a big story out of them, but none of what they’re saying is true. Like most other countries, we support democratic change in the Middle East, but we haven’t done anything beyond what Washington and Brussels are doing.
Has Kosovo assisted Syrian rebels ways other than through military training?
Last year the Council of Europe criticized Kosovo over widespread organ trafficking. Are any human organs being trafficked from or in Kosovo today?
Today there’s no chance whatsoever that any organs are trafficked here. After the war it did happen, but the perpetrators have been tried in court. We had one clinic that did illegal transplantations, but as you know, illegal transplantations have been rampant in the Balkans. Mainly in Serbia, actually. Today it’s Serbia that has the most illegal transplants in the Balkans, and it happens in Central Asia, Russia and Africa, too. As for the Council of Europe Assembly resolution, it was based on a completely fabricated report.
Is Kosovo a real state? Several countries refuse to recognize it, while others call it a failed state.
Kosovo is as much a state as anything else in the Balkans. We have elections, a government, a parliament. We’re entering multilateral organizations as a member. The vast majority of countries in the world recognize Kosovo. And Kosovars recognize Kosovo as a state.
You yourself are the more like the New Balkan Man – educated in Norway, founder of Kosovo’s first free newspaper, owner of a comicbook café. Do you represent a new generation of Kosovars?
I see myself as representing Kosovo, which is the youngest country in Europe. We’re only four years old. Our government, too, is the youngest in Europe: four ministers are under 35, and all well-educated. We’ve had Communism, war, transition, and now a lot of young Kosovars are coming back from all over the world. And Kosovars who never left are eager to rebuild the country, too. It’s like being in America immediately after Independence.
So Kosovo is the modern version of the United States in 1776?
Probably more post-modern! We’re now where other countries were 100 or 200 years ago. We’re a bit unlucky because we should have built our nation a century ago, but then again, we haven’t had the opportunity to make mistakes. For example, we have the smallest national debt in Europe, and the highest growth, 5.5%.
How far is Kosovo from being a normal country?
Kosovo is going places. We have a very large diaspora in Europe: every third Kosovar lives abroad. We’re very entrepreneurial and very outward-looking. Now we have to grow our economy. Our commodities are still untapped. German companies are opening call centers in Kosovo because so many Kosovars have lived in Germany and speak German. We only have 1.5 million residents, but we have a large proportion of young people. Singapore, too, is very small but found a niche. We want to become like Singapore.
Do you want Kosovars living abroad return?
Of course. Brain drain can become a brain gain. Indians returning from California make Bangalore an economic powerhouse. We want our diaspora to return and invest money here – and of course we want others to come, too. Yes, we’re poor, but not poorer than some EU members like Romania. Yes, we have 45% unemployment, but that doesn’t show jobs in the many shops and businesses that are simply not registered. The unemployment real figure is closer to 20%. And in terms of life-style, just look at coffee. We’re Europe’s second largest drinkers of macchiato per capita. And I dare say that we make the best macchiato in all of Europe!
….and you would know, since you own a café. Who are your customers?
Yes, it’s a bookshop café inspired by comic books. I don’t run it any more, though. We get many artistic people, international visitors, and sometimes politicians. The UN envoy wrote his report on Kosovo in my café. It was the first wi-fi hotspot in the Balkans when I installed it in 2002.
And you’re also the founder of Gazeta Express, Kosovo’s first Western-style newspaper. What are the challenges of running a newspaper in a former warzone?
Yes. When I was very young I edited a comics magazine, and after the war I joined forces with several other journalists to start Gazeta Express. Our focus was on photos, good content, good editorials. For example, we got Andy Testa from the New York Times to be our photo editor. I still have a blog on Gazeta’s website, and I’m proud that we raised the bar in terms of journalistic quality. For example, we credited photographers for their photos. Before us, newspapers just stole photos on the internet.
What does your experience as a businessman tell you about the state of Kosovo?
When I started the newspaper I took a bank loan at 14% interest rate. That’s basically loanshark money. Banks consider Kosovo a risky country so the interest rates you get are ridiculous. A big problem for businesses here is access to liquidity.
What’s your favorite comic series?
Tintin, Tank Girl and Judge Dredd.