BALKAN BLOG: Does Kosovo risk losing its greatest asset to the EU?

BALKAN BLOG: Does Kosovo risk losing its greatest asset to the EU?
A briefing in Pristina to inform Kosovars about the new visa-free regime with the EU, due to start in January 2024. / bne IntelliNews
By Clare Nuttall in Pristina December 29, 2023

Kosovars eagerly welcomed the long-awaited decision by the EU to offer visa-free travel, but the move has some employers very worried. In a country with a high emigration rate and young people with sought-after skills, the question is whether there there will be a mass exodus when it kicks in from January 2024. 

Kosovo already has one of the world’s largest diasporas in comparison to the size of its population, and one of the highest emigration rates in the region. Remittances from Kosovars working abroad, mainly in Western Europe but also elsewhere, make up around 16% of GDP

There’s no question that Kosovo’s residents are keen to travel; on almost every street corner in Pristina and elsewhere there are travel agents, dozens of them in the major cities, offering travel to Scandinavia, to the UK, to France, to Switzerland, to Turkey and above all to Germany. 

Despite Kosovo’s relatively buoyant economy — it was one of the faster growing economies in Emerging Europe during the coronavirus pandemic and the crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine — it remains one of the poorer countries in Europe and along with the rest of the Western Balkans it has seen mass emigration over the last few decades. This was exacerbated by the war of independence from Serbia at the end of the 1990s, but has continued after independence. Kosovo has a high unemployment rate, typically coming in at over 10%, especially among young people. 

Visa free travel 

Under the new rules, citizens of Kosovo will be allowed to travel to the EU without requesting a visa, for periods of up to 90 days in any six-month period.

The EU Council of Ministers gave the green light for visa liberalisation for Kosovo on March 9, 2023 and the European Parliament endorsed the decision the following month. From January 1, 2024, Kosovo will no longer be the only country in the Western Balkans region whose citizens cannot travel without visas to EU countries.

“After years in the waiting room, Kosovo is now the last one in the Western Balkan region to join our visa-free regime. This finally enables the people of Kosovo to easily travel, visit relatives and do business in the EU. But it is more than that: this milestone is also an important foundation for the future and ever-closer cooperation between the EU and Kosovo,” European Parliament rapporteur for Kosovo Thijs Reuten said in April when the decision was approved. 

From the same date, Kosovans will be granted visa-free entry to Switzerland, a member of the border-free Schengen zone but not the EU, for short-term stays, though they will still need a visa to work in the country.

Talent to be lost? 

The date for visa liberalisation is now imminent, despite tensions between Pristina and the EU over the failure to de-escalate tensions in northern Kosovo, where there have been several clashes between local Serbs and law enforcers during 2023. Brussels imposed punitive measures on Kosovo in connection to the situation, but visa liberalisation is still going ahead. 

Some businesspeople interviewed by bne IntelliNews in recently Pristina said there were fears that firms would struggle to find employees as the lure of travelling to EU countries for better paying jobs would prove strong. 

Sectors such as retail bring in a salary of only around €300-400 a month, well below the level in West European countries. 

The most sought after Kosovars are skilled workers in the country’s fast-growing ICT industry. However, sector representatives shrug off suggestions that firms could struggle to find and retain workers once the visa-free regime comes into force. 

They point out that the high salaries ICT companies offer professionals are providing a sound incentive for young people to stay in the country, thus addressing the interconnected problems of unemployment, poverty and high emigration.

“People in other sectors are worried because they believe their employees will go abroad and never come back,” says Vjollca Cavolli, CEO of STIKK, the association representing Kosovo’s ICT sector. But she says she and employers in the ICT sector have no such fears. “Some of them go but they will come back,” she says, arguing that the success of the sector is “part of the cure to the brain drain”. 

Demand for qualified workers in the sector is so high that salaries in the sector are comparable to those in Western Europe, but at the same time living costs are much lower.“Everybody is inviting them [Kosovar tech workers] but they know if they go to Germany the living costs are very high. It’s better to be at home with your family and friends working remotely and earning the same amount you would in Germany or the EU. Here you can live like a queen.” When people do leave, Cavolli says, it’s usually for two reasons: education and better healthcare systems. 

“From January 1, 2024, Kosovo has gained visa liberalisation. In a country where unemployment is high for the mismatching workforce, the potential for migrating from here to EU countries would be high. This [ICT] sector disincentivises that because salaries are quite high,” agrees Valon Grabanica, COO of Pristina-based tech company Kosbit. 

Meanwhile Shpend Lila, training, events and PR manager of the Innovation Centre Kosovo (ICK),, argues that mobility is a good thing for Kosovo and he is confident people will return home with valuable skills, experience and financial capital. 

“They need to go, people need to move,” he says. “People need to go out and experience the West. They need to fail, they need to learn but one thing I’m sure of is they will come back.” 

He points out that people who left Kosovo as children in the 1980s and 1990s are coming back now, and some of the biggest companies in Pristina today were founded by members of the diaspora who spent time in Germany, Switzerland and other countries. Of today’s younger generation, he says, “ they are not leaving forever … They will come back one day and will come back stronger.”