Everyone I meet in Kosovo asks the same question: “How do you know about our country?”

It’s the kind of question you’d never hear as a tourist in America, Japan, France, or other nations that don’t worry about brand recognition. But here at the margins, at the edges of recognition, this question is one visitors quickly come to expect. Of course, margins are a matter of perspective.

“My family is from Taiwan,” I’d answer each time. “And Taiwan is a bit like Kosovo.”

Smiles and knowing nods would arrive in response.

* * *


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Kao

The municipal administration building in the city of Prizren, with text thanking countries (including Taiwan) that have recognized Kosovo’s independence.

You might have trouble finding Kosovo on a map. It’s a third the area of Taiwan, 1.9 million people among a hodgepodge of other small nations in southeastern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula.

Size isn’t the only issue though. On some maps, the Republic of Kosovo simply doesn’t exist. The country only declared independence in 2008, nine years after a U.S.-led NATO intervention expelled Serbian forces from its territory during the Kosovo War, one of the conflicts that befell the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Not everyone recognized the declaration. The U.S., Japan, and most of Western Europe welcomed Kosovo into the family of nation-states. Serbia, which officially controlled Kosovo before the declaration, didn’t. It still regards Kosovo as an inalienable part of its territory. Today, only 97 U.N. member states recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, and Kosovo itself has not been able to join the U.N. because Russia and China support Serbia’s position.

It’s a marginal status that feels eerily, amusingly familiar to me.

* * *


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Kao

Car in North Mitrovica with license plate stickers and pro-Serbia license plate frame.

Sometimes, statehood makes itself felt in the form of pompous parades and glorious anthems. Mostly though, statehood is an exercise in the mundane. When statehood falls into question, the mundane becomes less so.

Upon entering Kosovo, I know to look at license plates. As my bus from Belgrade readies to cross the border (or the less sovereignty-implying “administrative boundary line,” as Serbia prefers it), I spot the drivers in front of us pulling over, running to the backs of their cars, crouching, and then ripping off two white stickers from their license plates. It’s a sign that they’ve come home.

Because their governments don’t recognize each other, yet share a land border, Kosovar and Serbian drivers must use standardized white stickers to cover their license plates’ national symbols while driving in the other country.

I can recognize this dance of license plate stickers thanks to Diell, a 27-year-old digital marketer and erstwhile elections advisor, whom I first met online. We bonded over a shared interest in learning about the comparative political situations of Kosovo and Taiwan.

When I arrived in Kosovo, we met in North Mitrovica, a city close to the country’s northern border with Serbia. As we meandered about on foot, we saw the opposite side of the license plate dance—all the cars around us have white stickers because they belong to ethnic Serbs who live within the Republic of Kosovo, but feel loyal to the Serbian state and retain Serbian license plates in an act of bureaucratic defiance.

Officially, Mitrovica is one city, in one country. Effectively though, it is two cities, in two countries.

During the socialist Yugoslav era (from the 1940s to 1990s), Albanians (the dominant ethnicity in contemporary Kosovo) and Serbs (the dominant ethnicity in Serbia, who also make up under 5% of Kosovo’s population today) lived side by side in Mitrovica. But after war broke out in the 1990s, the two ethnic groups fled to opposite sides of the river that divides Mitrovica–Albanians to the south, Serbs to the north. Today, Mitrovica has become virtually every foreign correspondent’s go-to symbol for the ethnic tensions that led to Kosovo’s separation from Serbia, and continue to dog its search for recognition.

“North Mitrovica isn’t just scary, it’s crime infested,” Diell warns me before our trip. As an ethnic Albanian, he’s only been to the city once before, with another Taiwanese traveler. Due to its location near a disputed border, Mitrovica isn’t just politically contentious; it’s also a hub for smuggling and organized crime. In the months before my visit, violence erupted multiple times between local Serbs and the Kosovar police; a special team of Italian police also helps patrol the city, trying but not always succeeding to prevent tensions from rising.

The North Mitrovica that Diell and I experienced on our stroll felt placid, almost boring. We arrived on Orthodox Easter, and the city’s streets lay empty, silence pierced by the barking of stray dogs sweltering beneath the hazy bright noontime sky. The only crowds congregated around the city’s main Serbian Orthodox Church, where Easter services were winding down. Diell and I waded in our sweaty t-shirts into the tide of churchgoers in their Sunday best. Nobody reacted, nobody gawked at us, the Albanian and the foreigner.

If I wasn’t with Diell, if I hadn’t learned to look for particular details, I could’ve easily assumed this was just another lazy Sunday in some indistinct Eastern European town. When not surfaced through headlines, trauma and tension lie beneath the surface—invisible to outsiders, masked in mundanity, lost in translation.

How often do travelers stop to wonder why a license plate has haphazardly applied white stickers? How likely will tourists notice that, after crossing a river, the alphabet in the store signs has changed, and that the Cyrillic mural in front of them says “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia?” How might a visitor realize, in the absence of a plaque, that the whitewashed Orthodox Church they’ve just observed an Easter celebration at was the replacement for an older church, one that was burned to the ground in an eruption of ethnic violence?

It’s probably easy to neglect these details if you’re from a place that takes them for granted, whose nationhood and identity rests solidly within the central norms of our contemporary international order. But what if you’ve also experienced life at the margins?

When you’ve grown up around license plates that append the character for “province” to what you thought was the name of a country, maybe you’ll know that vehicle registration can be a battleground for sovereignty. Or maybe you’ve seen posters screaming “Take back the mainland,” and wondered why maps either claim your country either doesn’t exist or is much bigger than it actually is, you’ll know to interrogate the meaning behind murals, the writing on walls.

* * *


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Kao

The Open Data Kosovo office, Pristina.

“Unfortunately, we are not so developed.” When I meet with individuals from the tech community in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, I hear this common reframe, an apology of sorts. “Sorry, we’re not rich enough.”

With a GDP per capita around US$4,300 and unemployment rate over 25%, Kosovo does lag behind many European peers when it comes to economic development. Brain drain is a major challenge, with scores of educated young Kosovars emigrating in search of better opportunities.

Kosovo’s lack of international recognition exacerbates the situation. Payment providers like PayPal don’t allow signups from Kosovo, ecommerce shipping sometimes must route through Albania, and prospective international business partners get turned off after Googling “what is Kosovo” and seeing headlines all about conflict.

“Nobody is going to invade us anytime soon. We have NATO troops and a huge U.S. base within our borders. If we get invaded, the world will have bigger problems. We’re safe for business!” Gzim explains this to me with an exasperated smile.

At age 25, he’s the CEO of a thriving software outsourcing business in Pristina, and has made enough to purchase two apartments. Over wine and lamb at a posh, castle-like restaurant, complete with stone blocks and battlements, it feels funny to hear the currents of “Sorry, we’re not rich enough” flow through our conversation.

“Taiwan and Kosovo have the opposite problem,” Gzim observes. “Here in Kosovo, we have security, but need prosperity. In Taiwan, you have prosperity, but need more security.”

I tell Gzim about how Taiwan actually has brain drain to China, and that youth disillusionment and underemployment remain major challenges. He reacts with surprise, but regains his composure.

“Well, I don’t think I’ll ever emigrate from Kosovo,” he says. “This is my home, my country. I need to help build it, to make it more prosperous.”

It’s not just Gzim who expresses this sense of pride.

“We may not be as developed, but unlike other countries in our region, we are actually a democracy,” state Blerta and Dafina, the heads of Open Data Kosovo (ODK), a digital open government NGO based in Pristina. “Our country also has a young population, the youngest in all of Europe.”

Blerta had visited Taiwan in 2019 for an open government conference. She’d met Digital Minister Audrey Tang, and learned all about g0v. We traded anecdotes in a glass conference room, surrounded by hip twenty-somethings typing away at coworking desks within the ODK office. Apparently demand for coworking among local tech freelancers was so strong that ODK had opened a second coworking space across the street from where I was sitting.

“You must have friends who are digital nomads,” Blerta and Dafina say, beaming with pride. “You should tell them to come work in Kosovo. Here, you should see our coffee machine!”

The sleek ODK office felt a world away from the empty streets of North Mitrovica, a bubble of youthful energy and pride trying to break through headlines about ethnic strife and international isolation. Diell, Gzim, Blerta, Dafina, along with over half of Kosovo’s population, are all too young to remember the war, or to have experienced a time where Serbia controlled Kosovo. They live in the present, with eyes fixed on the future.

* * *


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Kao

Looking down Bill Clinton Boulevard from Mother Teresa Cathedral, Pristina.

But what does the future hold? How far does youthful optimism go at the margins of our nation-state system? After all, pride alone cannot fill stomachs or thwart invasions. A thriving democracy, a wave of young activist energy, maybe even a successful Covid response—is that enough to counter brain drain, prevent rejection from international organizations, or grow a sluggish GDP?

On my last afternoon in Kosovo, I took an elevator to the clock tower of Mother Teresa Cathedral, for one last panoramic view of Pristina from above. To the northeast along George Bush Boulevard I spied the lattice-covered ​​Kosovo National Library nestled among the green lawns of the University of Pristina. I stared south down Bill Clinton Boulevard, squinting to find the famous Bill Clinton statue without getting distracted by a gaggle of half-built highrises. To the west lay the stegosaurus-spined Palace for Youth and Sports, and the “Newborn” monument before it—a favorite spot for Instagrammers and a testament to the youth of Kosovo’s nationhood and population.

As I circled the tower ramparts, I bumped into a female tourist talking to a young Kosovar student, who was saying how proud to be from Kosovo, but also sharing how he’d like to study abroad for his Master’s degree.

“Where are you from?” I ask the tourist, one of the few I’ve seen in this city.

“Palestinian, but also with a Jordanian passport,” she replies. “And you?”

“Taiwanese, but also with an American passport,” I answer.

The Kosovar student interjects. “Kosovo, Palestine, Taiwan? What are the chances?!”

We all share a long laugh, knowing and nervous, together, at the margins.

READ NEXT: Civilian Executions Are Not the Only Layer of Hell

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.