PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanians who fought Serbia for independence 8 years ago seem disillusioned as their dream approaches realization.
More than half of them did not bother to vote in an election on Saturday, despite the fact that it will chose the leaders they expect to declare statehood within a month or two.
Kosovo has no second-thoughts about its independence. But the realization that it offers no miracle cure for economic malaise has long overtaken the old euphoria.
“People are depressed,” said local newspaper editor Berat Buzhala. “This is about the economic situation. No water, no electricity, no jobs.”
Shops and small businesses with smart facades have burgeoned in the past few years, spreading cheery neon light onto streets once menaced by sandbagged Serb police checkpoints, where cowed Albanians hurried along in the dark.
Now, downtown Mother Teresa Street is being turned into a fine pedestrian corso, paved with imported Chinese granite and lined with trees, in time for Independence Day.
But litter and puddles still deface most of the capital, Pristina, and its smoke-filled cafes fuelled by the boredom of 60 percent unemployment are not likely to empty out soon.
“Over the past three years nothing has changed for the benefit of the people. Only certain people in government have gotten richer,” Buzhala said.
Kosovo was always a poor corner of the old Yugoslavia, mired for decades in a struggle between its steadily growing ethnic Albanian majority and ruling Serbs, who saw that demographic fact encroaching on their ancient homeland.
Serbia’s iron grip on the province was broken in 1999 when the military crackdown it unleashed on Albanian rebels went too far for Western powers, who used their superior NATO force to prevent a bloodbath after months of warnings went unheeded.
The United Nations has administered here since, its ubiquitous white four-wheelers an increasingly despised emblem of Kosovo’s limbo, between protectorate and true statehood.
An obsolete coal-fired power station belches smoke into the horizon north of the city. Electricity cuts are commonplace, portable generators a must-have household appliance.
It may get a little worse before it gets better, even if Kosovo wins quick recognition for a unilateral declaration of independence expected in the next couple of months.
Far from coming to terms with the loss of its province, Serbia is bitterly opposed to secession and may try to inflict as much pain as possible, by blockading recognition, trade, borders, power, telephones and whatever else it can influence.
Serbs living in the northern corner of the province will almost certainly reject the new republic, and since they have Serbia at their backs plus full support from Belgrade, there is little Kosovo can do to prevent de facto partition.
So the flag-raising jubilation of independence day, when it arrives, will have a sober undercurrent. Kosovo faces a long climb to the level of prosperity of the European Union, whose white four-wheelers will shortly replace those of the United Nations.
Editing by Stephen Weeks