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2016 Serbian general election – five key observations

imageThe Serbian general election has been announced for Sunday 24th April – the eleventh such contest to take place since 1990.  Below, I offer five key observations about what the elections mean for Serbia itself, the ruling Progressive Party and its leader Aleksander Vučić, relations with Kosovo and the medium-term prospects for Serbian accession to the European Union.

1. Prime Minister Vučic is king of all he surveys

Over the next month or so, many opinion pieces will be written about the Serbian elections. None of them will be in any doubt as to the likely result: a fresh term for the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and another four years of Aleksander Vučic as Prime Minister.

The SNS is one of the most successful and intriguing political parties to emerge in Europe in the past few years – a party of reformed (and, in some cases, unreformed) radicals that has somehow managed to keep a lid of Serbia’s predilection for ultra-nationalism, a collection of individuals who did little or nothing to oppose Slobodan Milošević’s worst excesses yet have nonetheless become cheerleaders for Serbia’s new-found EU love-in and a party of the economic liberal-right who nevertheless seem to hoover up votes in working class areas.

It is often said that, in Northern Ireland, it took former hard-liners like Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley to come to the table for real compromises to be thrashed out in order to secure lasting political change.  In the case of Serbia, the decision of now-President Tomislav Nikolić and Vučić to break with the Serbian Radical Party and their former ally Vojislav Šešelj and found the SNS as a new, pro-European force that was able to both simultaneously speak the language of frustrated Serbs and frustrated politicians in EU capitals.

The SNS administration hasn’t been perfect – but it has delivered the opening of EU accession talks, commenced a real programme of public service reform and attracted some solid foreign investment to Serbia.  Vučić has a record of achievement on which he to run.

imageThese are, however, elections he did not actually have to call.  Given that the SNS already holds 158 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly, he could easily have ruled until 2018 without any serious challenges from either the opposition or his own MPs – most of which are personally reliant upon him for their positions.

That said, his decision to call an early election isn’t a bad political call.  The opposition to Vučic and the SNS is fragmented to such an extent that is hard to identify who exactly is its “leader”.

It’s clearly not the Socialist Party leader Ivica Dacić, whose decision to accept the post of Foreign Minister in an entirely unnecessary coalition between his party and the SNS, has essentially seen his ability to differentiate he and his party from Vučić neutralised.  The country’s former President Boris Tadić would like to think he had a claim to the title, yet the fact he has been forced to form a joint electoral list this year with unpopular Liberal Democrat party leader Čedomir Jovanović in order to have any hope of remaining above the 5% electoral threshold speaks volumes as to his political appeal. One can write-off ultra-nationalists such as Vojislav Šešelj who, while popular in some smoke-filled cafes in Belgrade’s working class suburbs, are widely seen as figures of a darker, poorer past.  Finally, while the Democratic Party and their leader Bojan Pajtić, the President of the northern province of Vojvodina, make the odd aggressive noise from time to time, they have essentially become a regional party.

The issue of the economy is, as ever, an important one.  While hardly booming, it isn’t in disastrous shape – therefore, by the yardstick of the past twenty-five years, it appears rather robust to most Serbs.  The polls also show the SNS capturing as much as 60% of the vote, enough to hand Vučic and his party as many as 200 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly and a reinforced mandate to govern until 2020.  The election is essentially a risk-free option.

Serbia claims to be a Republic – but Vučić is as close to a king as Serbs are likely to get any time soon.

2. A bleak future for DS

Much of the credit for the recent decision to open formal European Union membership negotiations has gone to the SNS and Prime Minister Vučić himself.  It is, of course, only natural that the government of the day trumpets gains secured “on their watch”.

imageIn reality, Serbia’s modern, pro-western trajectory owes much to the work of the Democratic Party’s (DS) founders; chiefly the late Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, whose reformist efforts earned him an assassin’s bullet in the head.  In a post-Milošević landscape that could easily have been shaped and dominated by the unappealing duo of the cynical Vojislav Kostunica and downright dangerous Vojislav Šešelj, their considered and thoughtful tone on the need for regional dialogue and structural economic reforms, did much to help heal the country’s wounds.

While Prime Minister Vučic and President Nikolić would likely bitterly dispute this assertion, the creation of the SNS is as much a triumph for the DS as the creation of Tony Blair and New Labour were for Margaret Thatcher.

I struggle, though, to understand how the DS will remain a political force in the Serbia of 2016 – and the polls tend to agree with me.  Outside of the northern province of Vojvodina, where Bojan Bajtić governs on the basis of support from ethic Hungarian parties, it has lost much of its political support to a surging SNS party who have adopted the bulk of its pro-west and pro-reform rhetoric.

>Polls suggest that DS will remain in the National Assembly after April 24th – but only just.  From my perspective, the jury is very much out on whether they will be able to remain a credible political force by the time of the next parliamentary elections in 2020.

800px-Zajednica_srpskih_opstina3. For the second election running, the Kosovo issue is an afterthought 

The 2014 elections were unique in recent Serbian history in that they were not, even to a limited extent, dominated by the issue of Kosovo.

In the Brave New World in which Serbia is formally negotiating European Union membership, most mainstream political leaders now appear to have adopted a form of self-censorship on the topic; refusing to be drawn into the type of nationalist rhetoric on the topic that had been a political staple for much of the previous two decades.  The only mainstream politician to deviate from this line is President Nikolić himself, whose influence is seen as (at best) of tertiary importance.

One could read this as a tacit acceptance of Kosovo independence among the Serbian political elite or evidence of the discipline with which the country’s leaders are approaching the country’s ongoing EU accession negotiations. Both perspectives have some merit.

4. The hard-right are likely to make a comeback

Despite the tremendous advances towards modernity and moderation that have been made in recent years, Serbia remains a country where hard-line political rhetoric continues to have some cache.

imageThis is born out in the latest opinion polls which show that the Vojislav Šešelj’s Radicals (SRS), who were swept out of the National Assembly in 2014, are hovering just above the 5% electoral threshold for representation.  Polls also show that a coalition between the nationalist and socially conservative Dveri party and Vojislav Kostunica’s nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia (DPP) will secure seats.

In the case of Vojislav Šešelj, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is currently scheduled to issue its verdict in his Bosnian war crimes trial on March 31st; scarcely three weeks before polling day.  A “guilty” would no doubt galvanise the SRS voter base into action and may even see some of the party’s former voters who had defected to supporting Vučić in recent years returning to it. Unsurprisingly, the government have requested any verdict is postponed until May.

To what extent the return of hard-line and far-right MPs to the National Assembly would actually matter is up for debate.  On one level, Serbian politics has likely now evolved to such a stage as a cordon sanitaire would prevent the Radicals and Dveri-DPP from participating in government.  Nevertheless, the absence of explicitly racist, jingoistic and revanchist rhetoric from the floor of the National Assembly over the past two years has done much to aid Serbia’s efforts to present itself as a modern, mature democracy.

Watch this space.

5. 2020 vision: is Vučic promising too much?

One of the age-old problems with politics is the tendency for leaders to over-promise and then under-deliver.  This is often because politicians take the approach of making unrealistic promises that they have no intention of following through with and sometimes because of factors entirely beyond their control.  In the case of Vučić, he is running major risks on both fronts.

The entire public premise of the election set to take place next month is to provide Serbia with a solid and stable government that can shepherd the country towards EU accession in 2020.  That, regrettably, appears to be an unrealistic expectation.

imageThe European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been explicit that there will be no accession waves before the end of his term in late 2019. The political mood music surrounding migration from the Middle East to Western Europe – much of which has taken place via transit across Serbia, has also soured perceptions of the Schengen Agreement and further enlargement.  Elections in many EU member states, most notably France and Germany where the anti-expansion Front National and Alternative for Germany are surging, risk further eroding good will towards Serbia.

The issue of Kosovo remains a significant complicating factor for its EU membership bid.  It is clear that, through the pursuit of a EU-mediated “normalisation strategy”, Belgrade is hoping to take a gradualist approach towards improving relations with Pristina.  Regrettably for Serbia, larger EU states – all of whom recognise Kosovo as an independent state – are unlikely to settle for anything other than full recognition as a precursor to accession.  While much can change in four years, it is hard to envisage domestic opinion in Serbia being ready for such a landmark shift by 2020.  Indeed, its ability to do so may also be complicated by the rise of sharply anti-Serbian movements in Kosovo such as Vetevendosje, who have vowed to violently oppose all forms of rapprochement between Pristina and Belgrade.

EU membership remains a near-certainty for Serbia but it is looking less and less likely to happen in 2020 and less and less likely to happen on the terms Vučić and the SNS desire.

Kosovo and UNESCO: good for Kosovo and Serbians

gracLast week, I had the pleasure of watching a Serbian wedding in full flow. The bells, the flags, the smells, the songs, the smiles, the Chanel – it was a scene as Serbian a scene as one can imagine. Standing in the courtyard of the 14th century Gračanica monastery ten kilometres east of Pristina, it was rather difficult to imagine I was in a state where ethnic Albanians constitute more than 90% and where Islam – albeit a permissive a form as is possible – dominates.

It was a rare, joyful moment for the small Serbian community struggling for survival in a country whose leaders are seem as increasingly intransigent or indeed antagonistic towards their community and its culture.

I have long been of the view that the impact of Slobodan Milošević and his murderous campaign against ethnic Albanians has resulted in an overlooking or, in some cases, excusing of the crimes committed against both Serbs as people and their religious sites.

The expulsion in 1999 of 165,000 ethnic minority residents of Kosovo (most of them Serb) from their homes and destruction of more than 150 religious sites, some of which saw their 700-year history “semtexed” to little more than piles of rubble, is one of the great, overlooked crimes of post-Second World War European history. Furthermore, it ought to be a stain on the consciousness of the international troops stationed in Kosovo that they stood by in March 2004 as thirty-four churches were burned to the ground and 935 private homes damaged.

churchThe latest flashpoint – albeit only a diplomatic one – between Belgrade and Pristina is the prospect of Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) whose preamble commits to the “protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science” and “co-operation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity”. Predictably, this has led to a clash about the status and protection of Serbian cultural and religious history in the region.

The government of Serbia is, in my opinion, guilty of overdramatising the significance of the issue while the largely ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina has failed to communicate how and why membership could be of benefit to the defence of Kosovo’s Serbian heritage.

For Belgrade, the granting of UNESCO membership would represent yet another inextricable step towards full international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. I would argue, though, that the reality of United States, British, German and French recognition of the country makes it a reality rather than merely a prospect – regardless of how painful that realisation may be.

Concerns also appear to exist in respect of the Kosovo Government’s commitment to “taking care” of Orthodox sites and historical interpretations as to the “true” religious identity of those who built the religious sites. I would argue that both of these fears are misplaced.

Ferizaj, Mosque and ChurchThe welfare of the four sites already identified by UNESCO as being “at risk” – the Monastery of Dečani, Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica and Bogorodica Ljeviška Church – would arguably receive far greater attention and scrutiny by the international community when placed under the UNESCO banner than they do presently. Interpretations of history are, of course, often hotly contested in ethnic flashpoints such as Kosovo. While denial of Kosovo’s Christian heritage may exist in some quarters, there is a disconnect between feelings of febrile Vetevendosje (an extremist, pan-Albanian movement that has gained some ground in recent Kosovo elections) activists and the country’s political and academic leaders who accept the country’s Orthodox heritage.

Friends of mine should not have had to exhume relatives from graveyards in non-Serbian areas in order to be content their bodies are safe. The St Uroš Orthodox Cathedral in Uroševac/Ferizaj that stands in the same courtyards as the Mulla Veseli Mosque ought to serve as an example of Albanian and Serbian coexistence rather than being shuttered. The half-built Serbian church built in the shadow of the library of the University of Pristina and the Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa should be completed, rather than crumbling.

I would, with the greatest of respect, suggest to Serbia and Serbians that past examples of cruel and senseless desecration and destruction of Orthodox Serbian sites ought not to be a reason to reject a mechanism that would help protect what remains and reconstruct what’s a risk.

It is impossible for either Serbs or Albanians to turn back the clock and bring back either loved-ones lost in war or cultural heritage desecrated and destroyed over the past two decades.

UNESCO membership would, however, be a solid step towards boosting the accountability of Kosovo’s leaders. Sites judged to be “at risk” would be subject to inspection, with demands for improvements in the protection of Christian heritage elevated to the international stage. UNESCO membership takes nothing away from Serbs or Serbian culture – but instead grants protections that were not previously there.

For those reasons, Serbia and Serbians should support Kosovo’s UNESCO bid.

Albanian EU membership? Not so fast.

imageOn Tuesday, European foreign affairs ministers voted to grant Albania formal EU “candidate country” status. A final vote will take place amongst heads of government during the summit taking place today and tomorrow (26th and 27th June), yet most expect the South East European country’s newfound status to be rubber-stamped.

News of the granting of “candidate country” status has rightly and understandably been lauded in Tirana as a tremendous step forward for Albanian EU membership. The country’s (relatively) new centre-left Prime Minister Edi Rama has presented the development as a vindication of his frenetic shuttle diplomacy around EU capitals. Former Prime Minister, President and centre-right opposition leader Sali Berisha has also sought to muscle in the announcement; presenting it as a “natural continuation” of the previous government’s work.

Amidst the euphoria, however, a dose of basic realism is needed. Albania is not on the verge of EU membership. Indeed, as the experience of Turkey – a formal “candidate” for integration into the Brussels institutions for the best part of a decade – proves, the term represents little more than semantics.

Albania is not ready to join the European Union. Indeed, it’s nowhere near meeting the basic, minimum membership criteria.

On a political level, while sixteen EU states lobbied in favour of Albania receiving “candidate” status, the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Germany lobbied against the proposal. While each government has a number of internal sensitivities to navigate in respect of potential Albanian membership, the chief motivation for their concerns are crime and corruption-related.

Albania has an image problem. Regrettably, perceptions of excessive criminality in Albania are widespread in many EU member states. These perceptions have been repeatedly reinforced at an institutional level; most recently in the European Commission’s communication to the Council of Ministers which included a number of scathing passages criticising Albania’s record on tax evasion and money laundering, the efficiency of police investigations and public prosecutions and human trafficking.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.

Unlike a number of other EU “candidate” countries in South Eastern Europe, Albania has not attempted to pursue a quixotic strategy of trying to balance relations with Brussels and Moscow. Albania has neither been held back by the emotional links to Russia that Serbia has nor the economic pressures substantial Russian domestic investments in Montenegro bring.

Albania’s existing status us a NATO member – and therefore a country with clear aspirations to play an active role in Euro-Atlantic cooperation – will rightly be viewed as a significant factor in the country’s favour.

Through accepting “candidate” country status, Albanian leaders have demonstrated to EU leaders that they are willing to accept the challenges that increased scrutiny of its judicial and business climate and public administration processes will bring. Indeed, it is often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant – and increased scrutiny will be either the making or the breaking of Albanian EU membership aspirations.

As already discussed, the first key milestone for the Rama administration will be remedying concerns relating to crime and corruption. While one could embark upon a detailed discussion of what measures should be taken – from deeper cooperation with Interpol to the need to make examples of high profile public officials with their hands in the till by throwing them in gaol – the fundamental point is that nothing short of zero tolerance on this matter will be enough.

When it comes to its member states, the EU professes to loathe instability and immaturity in the democratic process. With its hands full dealing with the Ukraine crisis – for which there is no end in sight – the last thing it wishes to deal with is internal political crises in Albania.

The Commission’s 2013 report on Albanian progress towards “candidate” status was explicit in stating that “constructive and sustainable dialogue” was required between the government and opposition on EU-related matters. To date, the burlesque circus show operated daily by Rama and Berisha on the floor of the National Assembly gives little confidence in the maturity of Albania’s democracy. Both men need to demonstrate increased maturity in their political discourse.

Just as the EU wishes to avoid political instability, Angela Merkel – who would be more accurately described as Germany’s Prime Minister and Europe’s Chancellor – wishes to avoid further economic meltdowns of the type witnessed in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. The German public are simply unwilling to foot the bill any longer.

As such, the fact that Albania’s budget deficit and external debt continues to increase year-on-year and the statutory debt ceiling of 60% of GDP has been ridden roughshod over inspires little confidence.

If Albania is to convince EU leaders it is a suitable candidate for membership, two things need to happen. Firstly, the Albanian people must be willing to swallow savage cuts in public spending and an overhaul of their social security system. Secondly, Albanians will have to start actually paying their taxes rather than engineering schemes to shirk them.

Both of these actions require decisive government action and could prove politically toxic. They are, however, the only practical ways through which to engender the kind of economic credibility EU leaders are looking for in new member countries.

In being handed formal “candidate” status, Albania and Albanians haven’t been handed an overnight deliverance from the country’s many problems. The perception in Brussels and EU member states remains that Albania is a corrupt and unreliable state.

Instead, Albania has been given an opportunity to show that bold promises and the rhetoric of reform can be backed up with real achievements.

So Albania, the EU is watching.  But are you serious?

Happy Kosovo

Happy” is not the word most people would use to describe the divided city of Mitrovica in Kosovo.

Despite an EU brokered agreement, the city remains ethnically split between Serbs living on the northern bank of the River Ibar and Albanians on the south.

The worst of the clashes between the two communities have gradually dissipated over the last few years but tensions – many of them exacerbated by cack-handed policies handed down by foreign governments and international organisations with little practical knowledge of the reality of the situation on the ground – remain very much in evidence.

Against that backdrop, it’s surprising to see an amusing video coming out of North Mitrovica put together by young people who live in the town:

As my friend Milos said on Twitter last night, “finally, something positive from North Mitrovica“…

I’m sure it won’t take long for someone to allege that the video has “secret nationalist overtones” or that its creators have a “hidden agenda” – but I think they’re looking for something that simply isn’t there.

Kosovo elections and ethnic Serb participation – the real challenge is North Kosovo

eulex_kosovo-ethnic-1The past months have seen a marked shift in external perceptions of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.

These changes have been largely brought about by efforts by the government in Belgrade to temper the more bellicose language used by its officials towards Pristina and a willingness of Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci’s administration to compromise on judicial and policing matters in order to strengthen the hand of the minority Serb community.  For both nations, the prospect of EU membership is no longer a pipe-dream but a genuine possibility.

The present period of relative détente between the two parties does, however, remain fragile.  While confidence-building measures have improved relations between the two sides, little trust exists.

The local elections scheduled to take place on November 3rd are one big confidence-building measure in themselves.

Traditionally, the vast majority of Serbs in Kosovo have refused to participate in the institutions of the independent Kosovo.  This refusal has been based upon two factors – firstly, personal anger at what some Serbs saw as an ethnic Albanian “power grab” when Pristina declared independence and secondly, because of the urging of Belgrade officials to boycott the polls.

The increased levels of cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina have precipitated a thawing in Serb opposition to the elections – largely as a result of realpolitik.  Serbs living in Kosovo realise that independence is now an irreversible reality for Kosovo and that non-participation in the election process is tantamount to handing power to the ethnic Albanian community.

On a visit to the Serbian enclave of Gracanica yesterday, Serbian Prime Minister Dacic said: “it is in their [the Albanians] interest to have as few Serbs as possible vote in the elections… we have to do something that does not suit them, and that is to take power and use it for our own interest”.

The two leading candidates for the office of Mayor of the Serbian portion of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic and Oliver Ivanovic are also urging Serbs to participate in the elections.

In an interview with InSerbia.com, Pantic said: “these will not be just local elections, and the vote does not mean the Serbs will recognize Kosovo independence… on the contrary, [we] will finally get institutions recognized by the international community and institutions that the Albanians will have to respect”.   Ivanovic added: “we have the option to maintain a good relationship with Serbia or stay all alone. We have no relations with Pristina, we have not had relations with Brussels for a long time, and in the event that we refuse to turn out, we will be left on our own, and that is bad, and disastrous”.

It’s a curious turn-around on the part of both Belgrade and figures formerly views as anti-Pristina “hard-liners”: rather than accuse Serb participants in the elections as traitors as in the past, leading Serbian politicians are instead urging their community to vote for positive, patriotic reasons.

From the perspective of anyone wishing to see stability in the region, the Serbian government is right to urge Serbs in Kosovo to participate in the elections.   Many Serbs in Belgrade are, however, too far removed from the day to day reality of life in Kosovo to understand that Kosovo Serbs are far from being a monolithic block.

Take the case of Gracancia, where Prime Minister Dacic made his comments urging Serbs to participate in the elections.   Gracanica is no more than fifteen minutes from the centre of Pristina and entirely surrounded by ethnic Albanian areas.   As pleasant as the village is with its stunning monastery and clutch of delicious small bakeries, it’s far from a metropolis.

For the Serbs that live there, interaction with the administration in Pristina isn’t an option but rather a reality if they wish to access healthcare, pensions and, for young people, a quality education.  They realised at the last round of local elections that the votes of their community could buy lasting political power in the area whereas non-participation would hand control of local government to Albanians.

The same is not true for the Serbian communities of North Kosovo that are largely physically divided from the rest of the country by the Ibar.

If one looks beyond the pile of rubble on the bridge separating north and south Mitrovica and the odd ultra-nationalist mural in the pretty town of Zvecan, there is very little difference between life in North Kosovo and the towns just over the border in Serbia proper.   For the citizens of North Kosovo, the institutions of the Serbian state remain in very much place – from schools and universities to pension offices to health clinics.   Serbian music still fills smoky cafes from Zubin Potok to Leposavic and knowledge of the Albanian language is, at best, threadbare.

While international troops continue to roam the streets, the residents of the north feel largely “safe” from the administration in Pristina that few trust and even fewer wished to see declare independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs in the North see the recent Pristina-Belgrade accords as having threatened their sovereignty and jeapordised their passionate wish to return to direct control from Belgrade.  Why, they ask, should they participate in elections they see as Pristina-led when they are already largely in control of their own destiny?  What, they wonder, is the real agenda of politicians in both Belgrade and Pristina?  Is Belgrade sacrifyincing them, they wonder, in order to pursue a greater EU dream at the expense of its own citizens?

Here is where the challenge lies in respect of the November 3rd.

Serb participation in the local elections south of the Ibar will, of course, be seen as a great success for both Serb and Kosovan EU ambitions.  But it might not be enough to satisfy EU power-brokers.

These elections can only be judged to be a success of the 75,000 Serbs of North Kosovo can be persuaded that participation is in their patriotic interests.

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the word on the ground is that participation on the North is unlikely to exceed a disastrous 20%.

The last months have heralded significant improvements in Pristina-Belgrade relations.  The next challenge is how to go about improving trust between Belgrade and North Kosovo.

Kosovo: cultural ghetto?

There’s a piece in today’s English-language version of Deutsche Welle which examines the challenges faced by Kosovan artists in promoting their work internationally.  Rather provocatively, the piece describes Kosovo as “Europe’s cultural ghetto“.

While it is true that many young Kosovars working in the creative industries are currently struggling to participate in international film festivals and art exhibitions as a result of the fact a significant number of countries including Russia, China and Brazil do not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence and will not issue visas to those living in the country.  In the case of those countries that do recognise Kosovo (including the United States, UK, France and Germany), the visa regime for Kosovar nationals is complex and inaccessible.  While all other states in South East Europe now enjoy visa-free travel to countries in the Schengen Area, Kosovars remain isolated from the rest of Europe.

So, until Kosovo’s culture can come to us, I’d urge you to go to Kosovo.

As anyone who has visited will tell you, Kosovo is a country of contrasts; from the chaos of Pristina’s central market and their soundtrack of Turkish Europop to the quiet solemnity of rural Istok and historic Prizren.  While the pluri-religious nature of Kosovo has taken a serious knock in the years following the late 90s conflict, the influence of both the Serbian Orthodox Church and Sunni Islam lives on; most notably in the southern city of Uroševac where an imposing church stands only a stone’s throw from a mosque.

Give Kosovo a go.

Annoyingly, British Airways has cancelled its direct flight from London to Pristina as a result of a fuel dispute with the airport’s Turkish owners – but flights routed through Zagreb and Budapest continue to be cheap at roughly £250 return and take less than five hours, including changes.  Direct flights remain in place from Brussels, Geneva and most large German cities and cost no more than £150.

Accommodation in Pristina can be expensive but I find the Hotel Begolli close to the main market to be an affordable, comfortable and immaculately clean alternative to the Tito-era monstrosity that is the Grand Hotel, which was once the hang-out of Serbian war criminal Arkan who rather perplexingly served as one of Kosovo’s Members of Parliament in the 1990s.

Anyone considering a visit to the country should start by reading the excellent WikiTravel article on Pristina which contains some excellent tips on things to do when in town.  My number one piece of advice, however, is just to grab a map of the city and go for a wander.  You’ll get lost in the city’s winding streets but you’ll never be unsafe at any time of the day or night, with the city’s residents being amongst the friendliest of any on earth.

From a “tourist” perspective, you can see Pristina in a day or two, taking in famous sites such as the golden statue of Bill Clinton and mosques on Nazim Gafurri Street while sampling the city’s excellent coffee shops and surprisingly good restaurants (Pi Shat on Qamil Hoxha Street is a must if you want to try some traditional Albanian food).

Pristina is undoubtedly an interesting city, buzzling with life and populated by permanently-smiling people – but it’s not a beautiful one.  If you want to sample the best in Kosovan architecture, then take the bus from Pristina two hours south to Prizren where you can visit scores of historic mosques, a historic castle and the town’s impressive main piazza.  At the top of the hill you can visit the remains of the Serbian quarter, most of which was sadly destroyed in the 2004 uprising against Serbs.

Around an hour north of Pristina is the town of Mitrovica, a place often described by the press as “Europe’s most dangerous city“.  While most of the rest of Kosovo is almost-entirely populated by Albanians, Mitrovica remains ethnically divided with Albanians living the southern part of the city and Serbs in the north, the two communities divided a bridge over the River Ibar.

While occasional violence flares up between Serbs and Albanians (often sparked by cross-bridge taunting about each other’s sporting defeats), both areas are safe for foreigners to visit.  Those living in the south of Mitrovica will tell you the north is too dangerous to visit – but feel free to ignore they warnings.

Travelling from Pristina’s main bus station, you’ll be able to take a bus to the Mitrovica’s main square and will then have to walk across the bridge, passing a mass of Serbian flags and graffiti of the ultra-nationalist variety.  You can also take a taxi right up to the bridge (just ask for “Mitrovica mosh’t” and the driver will understand where you’re after) for about €25.  After a few days in Pristina, you’ll immediately feel as if you are in an different country in terms of language, music and  architecture. (On a political level, I’ve long argued that the northern parts of Kosovo should be partitioned and transferred to Serbia).

If, as is likely, your time in North Mitrovica is limited, simply follow the road up to the imposing Orthodox church on the hill for some of the best views of the Albanian and Serb parts of the city.  If you have time to stop for food, you’ll find a range of excellent restaurants serving a range of Serbian and Western food and scores of friendly bars and coffee shops.  Do spend a few moments speaking to local people you come across, most of whom speak excellent English.  They have a very different take on political issues to those living south of the Ibar but are endlessly courteous and welcoming of foreigners.

Kosovo isn’t a typical tourist destination – but it is a fascinating and rewarding one.  And it’s not a cultural ghetto.

Correction – Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister has been in touch to say; “Brazil and China do issue visas to Kosovars as they have recently recognised Kosovo passports. Indeed, a young Kosovo film director Arzan Kraja just participated in a festival in Rio, supported by joint project supported by British Council Kosovo and Kosovo’s MFA. One can also travel with a tourist visa to China with Kosovo passport (ironically, its easier for Kosovars to travel to Beijing nowadays then Bruxelles).”