Kosovo tourist site ‘could be another Switzerland’
The ski slopes of Strpce in Kosovo are among the finest in Europe, but political unrest has crippled development in the potentially prosperous town.Strpce – The lack of snow in the mountain town of Strpce is only one of the headaches for Kosovo's best-known tourist destination, whose ski slopes are said to be among the finest in Europe.
Rival groups elected in rival polls both claim the right to rule here in a battle that has hamstrung development in one of impoverished Kosovo's few Serb enclaves with good economic prospects.
One side even changed the locks on city hall, infuriating its rival and exasperating some residents in this town of 16,000 that lives mainly off tourism revenues from the once-bustling Brezovica ski resort.
"We not only lack snow we lack wisdom too," restaurant owner Stojimir Rackovic told AFP.
The feud is Serb-on-Serb, a departure from the more frequent scenario of Kosovo's Serb minority vs. Albanian majority.
"Strpce actually has two opposing administrations: one which is financed by Serbia and another by Kosovo," explained local journalist Zlatko Ugrinovic.
"The administrations do not recognise each other and both claim they are legal," he said.
Will Serbs – who represent five percent of Kosovo's two million residents – keep fighting Belgrade's battle or will they cooperate with Pristina and integrate post-independence institutions, which offer them greater local power and development assistance?
Though Kosovo's independence is recognised by 65 countries, including most EU states and world powers except Belgrade-ally Russia and China, Serbia is challenging its legality before the United Nations.
It encourages Serbs to boycott Kosovo state institutions, and finances a separate political, social, educational and health system in the 50 or so Serb-majority areas, offering its employees there twice what they'd earn in a similar job in Serbia proper.
The row in Strpce, a town in the extreme south, escalated last month when the pro-Kosovo mayor Bratislav Nikolic decided to shut out the pro-Serbian mayor Zvonko Mihajlovic who, in his view, had been "squatting" city hall.
He ordered his staff to change the locks, and police barred Mihajlovic from entering the next morning.
"It was an act of violence and an act of expulsion of the Serbian institutions from Kosovo," Mihajlovic said angrily.
'Strpce could be another Switzerland'
Nikolic, however, considers himself the rightful occupant.
Mihajlovic was elected in May in a poll organised by Belgrade, though not supported by the international community or recognised by Pristina. His rival was elected in local elections across Kosovo in November which many Serbs decided not to boycott.
"I have the mandate to run Strpce because 4,335 people voted for me in November compared to 1,270 votes Mihajlovic got in the May polls," Nikolic told AFP.
He charged that the pro-Serbia administration had failed to address citizens' concerns and got the town into debt. Backing from Pristina, he said, was essential both for Strpce's recovery and a hoped-for privatisation of Brezovica ski resort to attract foreign investors.
"The only alternative was to take our fate into our own hands," said Nikolic.
Many locals dream of the resort's heyday before the former Yugoslavia was torn apart in the 1990s Balkans wars. Brezovica, with its giant slalom, was one of the region's main ski destinations and drew tourists from all over Europe, Rackovic recalled.
Clients now are mainly Kosovars, and unseasonably warm weather has kept even them away this winter.
"January failed completely although it is the first and best month of the ski season," he said in his near-empty restaurant at the foot of the main slope. He said business was only 10 percent of the usual volume.
Yet the town – where Albanians are welcome and which never saw any major ethnic battles in the 1998-99 war – has potential. Studies by Kosovo's investment promotion agency say that Brezovica, "with the typical features of Alpine mountains", could attract an annual 2.4 million visitors from home and neighbouring states, year round, and more if the resort is pitched farther afield.
Tourist figures now are only in the tens of thousands, and mainly during the ski season.
The restaurateur blames the political row for discouraging foreign investment and worries that a resolution could come too late to save the town.
"The youth are leaving while we elders are dying out," he said.
Others voice hope, including Naim Rashiti of the Kosovo office of the International Crisis Group think tank who pointed to the Kosovo polls in November.
"Strpce's mass participation in the elections demonstrates that Serbs were not happy with the parallel (pro-Serbian) structures," he said.
"If our politicians were smart they would play both sides," sighed Rackovic.
"If both mayors were reasonable and used the potential of their backers, Strpce could become another Switzerland."
AFP / Expatica