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Kosovars Find Birth Of New Country Tough

  • Arbana Vidishiqi

Downtown Pristina's Mother Teresa Street

Downtown Pristina's Mother Teresa Street

Kosovo has three legal telephone operators, but it doesn't have its own international dialing code. When I sign letters and e-mails, I must always remember to include my two contact numbers with their respective country codes. My landline number begins with Serbia's "381" code, and my mobile phone sports the "377" code of Monaco. The third operator in Kosovo uses the "386" code of Slovenia.

The authorities here say that sorting this mess out is an important step for economic development. To do so, Kosovo must gain membership of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the leading United Nations agency for information and communications. But Kosovo is not yet a member of the United Nations, so joining the ITU and getting an international dialing code remain major hurdles.

It isn't easy for a new country to be born. The dialing-code dilemma is but one illustration of how everyday life is changing for the people of Kosovo, the world's newest state, which has so far been recognized by 43 countries including the United States and 20 of the European Union's 27 members.

So many of the issues touching the lives of Kosovars have their political contexts. Take passports, for instance. Since 2001, Kosovars have held a UN travel document that is recognized by 39 countries around the world. Because of the difficulties obtaining that document, many Kosovars -- primarily those living abroad -- have had little choice but to hang onto their old Yugoslavian passports.

Now the Kosovo government is preparing to issue its own national passports. But people will face another hard choice. Among Kosovo's neighbors, only Albania is expected to recognize this new document.

During the demonstrations, parades, and independence concerts, no one thinks about things like passports and international dialing codes. But when the music stops, ordinary people think of little else.

As I type these words, my computer beeps to tell me that the electricity has gone off again. I'll come back to this. For now, I wanted to add that Kosovars are lucky at least in that some Western countries have opened embassies in Pristina. Soon we won't have to undertake costly trips to Tirana, Skopje, or Belgrade to apply for travel visas.

As for the electricity, where does one start? Aging power plants, corruption, incompetence, too many managers (both local and international), unpaid bills... And it's the same story with the water. Sadly, perhaps, people are getting used to living without regular supplies of electricity and water -- just as they are used to high unemployment and crushing poverty.

On top of everything else, the majority of the population -- not just ethnic Albanians, but other communities as well -- has to accept the so-called positive discrimination of the Serbian community. Here's one example: Serbian-dominated districts of the country have paid nothing for their electricity since the end of the war. And each time the power companies or the government try to do something about it, by cutting supplies or by any other means, the UN has intervened in the name of tolerance and the multiethnic state. Of course, there are unpaid bills in other parts of the country, but no one is stopping officials from at least limited measures there.

Many in Kosovo blame the UN for such problems. Others criticize the government. Soon the EU will very likely join the ranks of the accused. Patience is an exhaustible commodity as people try to get on with their day-to-day lives.

But so far, for the most part, when you look into the faces of people on the street at the end of another day, you get the impression that these things are not that important. For them, it is just the end of another long, tiring, confusing day in their newborn independent country, a country they and their ancestors have been dreaming of for centuries. They still have hope that the next day will dawn a little brighter, a little easier. And in the background, you can almost hear the toddling baby steps of the new nation, although -- like any other baby -- it still needs someone to lean on. For a while at least.

Arbana Vidishiqi is the Pristina bureau chief for RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL