Kosovo PM calls for end to exodus on sombre anniversary

Ismet Hajdari
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Kosovo Albanians dance during celebrations marking the seventh anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, in Pristina on February 17, 2015

Kosovo Albanians dance during celebrations marking the seventh anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, in Pristina on February 17, 2015 (AFP Photo/Armend Nimani)

Pristina (AFP) - Kosovo marked a sombre seventh anniversary of independence from Serbia Tuesday with Prime Minister Isa Mustafa urging citizens not to quit the mainly ethnic Albanian territory as it grapples with a deep economic malaise.

"People have no reason to leave Kosovo, they have a reason to stay," he told lawmakers.

"The future of Kosovo and its citizens will be brighter and more prosperous," Mustafa said at a special parliamentary session, calling for action against unemployment, poverty, corruption and organised crime.

An economic crisis has over the past few months triggered a mass exodus of tens of thousands of impoverished ethnic Albanians in search of a better life in EU countries.

More than 20,000 people have left Kosovo so far this year, according to officials from the main destinations of Hungary, Austria and Germany.

Apart from a reception by President Atifete Jahjaga for foreign diplomats and local officials, the parliamentary session was the only official event planned to celebrate the territory's unilateral breakaway from Belgrade in 2008.

Not a single Kosovo flag was flying on the main street in Pristina.

But despite the economic gloom and freezing temperatures, around a thousand people gathered at the main promenade to mark the occasion, some waving small flags.

Selim Kastrati, clutching the hand of his six-year-old grandson, was one of them.

"If it was just for me I would not have left my house today, but I had to come for my grandson," the 67-year-old pensioner told AFP. "I hope he will see better days in his country."

In the past, Kosovo independence anniversaries have been celebrated with military parades attracting thousands of people.

But government spokesman Arban Abrashi told reporters that events this year should be "modest" because of the challenges facing the impoverished territory.

A third of Kosovo's population of around 1.8 million is jobless and about 40 percent live in dire poverty.

"There are no reasons for glorification on the anniversary, we need to bow our heads and start working," the head of the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce, Safet Gerxhaliu, told AFP.

"The political agenda has dominated much more while economic development has been ignored."

More than 100 countries, including the United States and most of the EU's 28 member states, have recognised Kosovo's independence.

Serbia still refuses to recognise the move, but Pristina and Belgrade normalised ties in 2013 under an EU-brokered deal.

Following the 1998-99 war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian troops to withdraw from Kosovo and cede control of the territory.