Kosovo election wild card

PRISTINA – Kosovo’s richest son has come home with an election promise to apply his business success to the territory’s moribund economy, drawing both voter support and accusations of dangerous populism. Behgjet Pacolli shares the commitment of his rivals to independence from Serbia, but the Swiss-based construction tycoon is tipped to clinch third place in Saturday’s parliamentary ballot on a fresh program to run the would-be country like he rules the boardroom. His emergence as the wild card is testimony to the disillusionment of 2 million Kosovo Albanians at their bitter economic plight eight years since NATO bombed to stop Serb atrocities and the United Nations took over. «Kosovo has no economic potential,» Pacolli, head of the New Kosovo Alliance, said in his wood-paneled Pristina office. «But Kosovo can offer labor, a huge desire to make things happen.» «If Kosovo had functional and honest governance, all I’d have to do would be to nurture my business,» he told Reuters. «But this isn’t the case. We have lost eight golden years.» Kosovo is threatening to declare independence after negotiations with Serbia end in December, but there is no quick fix for the poverty that still blights the region. Diplomats say that even if Kosovo wins recognition from the West early next year, high double-digit unemployment and an average salary of -150 per month could spell social unrest. Pacolli speaks convincingly of the need to explore micro-finance, invest in agriculture and make the most of a cheap labor force to attract foreign investment. He promises 70,000 new jobs over four years, and to double the -700 million budget in a year by hitting tax evasion. «If I want to produce cigarettes in Kosovo, it is impossible to compete with Philip Morris, but better to be part of Philip Morris and part of globalization,» he said. «We have people who work, a youth prepared for challenges.» Born in 1951, Pacolli left Kosovo aged 17 to build his fortune – he says he is worth more than a billion euros – constructing grandiose government offices and presidential palaces in former Soviet republics. His Lugano-based Mabetex company renovated the Kremlin and now has lucrative contracts in Kazakhstan. Forecast to win around 16 percent of the vote, Pacolli could be a real force in the 120-seat parliament. He is competing against the Democratic Party of Kosovo of ex-guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, which has a narrow lead in opinion polls, and the second-ranked Democratic League of Kosovo, founded by late pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova. But analysts fear Pacolli is raising expectations at a time of tension over the West-Russia deadlock on Kosovo’s future. Agron Bajrami, editor of the Kosovo daily Koha Ditore, said Pacolli was «promising paradise in a place where most people think they are living in hell… He’s creating high expectations he can’t meet,» he said. An estimated 35,000 young Kosovo Albanians enter the saturated job market every year, contributing to figures of 60 percent unemployment among Europe’s youngest population. With no real industry to speak of, Kosovo relies heavily on customs duties. Political limbo has slowed privatization, muddied ownership claims and deterred investors. «I have always shown I can work and I can be successful,» said Pacolli. «This is why I will be successful in politics.»