PRISTINA - Voters in Kosovo will pick a new parliament on Sunday in a snap election dominated by rampant corruption, sky-high unemployment and poor relations with neighboring Serbia that it must try to mend if it is to move closer towards eventual EU membership.
Kosovo has Europe's youngest population, with an average age of 29, and has seen annual economic growth averaging 4% over the past decade, but it remains very poor and more than 200,000 Kosovars have left and applied for asylum in the European Union since Pristina won its independence from Belgrade in 2008.
The election was triggered by the resignation of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in July after he was summoned for questioning by the war crimes prosecutor in The Hague over his role in the 1998-99 insurgency against Serb forces.
Public dissatisfaction with the record of his three-party governing coalition has boosted support for opposition parties, with the center-right Democratic League for Kosovo (LDK) and the nationalist, left-leaning Vetevendosje vying for first place.
The LDK's candidate for prime minister, Vjosa Osmani, said she believed Kosovars were now ready to be led by a woman for the first time.
"In more than 90 percent of cases it is men who are involved in corruption. A woman sees the state and how to take care of our citizens completely differently," Osmani told Reuters.
Educated in the United States, the 37-year-old law professor represents a younger generation of Kosovars more familiar with life in the West and deeply frustrated with the nepotism and ineffectiveness of the tiny Balkan nation's traditional parties.
‘It cannot get any worse’
Her campaign slogan is "believe!" but voters are skeptical about politicians' promises in a country where more than a third of people are unemployed and getting a well-paid job usually requires hard cash or political connections.
"To get a job you need to bribe someone or know the right officials," said Lindita Azemi, 22, who earns less than 300 euros a month cooking up hamburgers at a local shop despite having a degree in political science and public administration.
Echoing that note of disillusionment, Ramadan Bibaj, 66, said: "Whoever wins, it cannot get any worse than this."
"Politicians became very rich and now they don't want to know about the people. Within five years fewer than 400,000 people will remain here (if things continue like this)" he said.
Kosovo's population now stands at 1.8 million.
Both Osmani and her main rival, Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti, are trying to tap into the public anger over graft.
While Osmani favors free market reforms, Kurti advocates a sovereign fund to rebuild state-owned firms in key sectors. But both remain opposed to making territorial concessions to Serbia — one option proposed for reviving stalled talks on normalizing bilateral relations.
Predominantly Albanian Kosovo declared independence in 2008, nearly a decade after NATO bombing drove Serb security forces out of what was then a Serbian province. In 2013, Kosovo and Serbia agreed to EU-sponsored talks, but little progress has been made since.
Kosovo's independence has been recognized by more than 110 states but not by others, including five EU member states, as well as Serbia, Russia and China.
Under its constitution, Serbia considers Kosovo part of its territory. Pristina has imposed a 100% tax on Serbian imports and says it will only scrap it after Belgrade recognizes Kosovo as a sovereign state.
Opinion polls predict no party gaining enough support to form a government on its own after Sunday's election, and lengthy coalition talks are expected.