* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Addressing informality in the land sector is key to lifting people out of poverty, writes Hajredin Kuçi, Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister
Kosovo is a young country. Only 8 years ago, in 2008, Kosovo declared its independence and set out on its own journey. With 75 percent of the population under the age of 35, Kosovo also has the youngest population in Europe. As a young country with a young population, we are working to bring our society fully into the Western world. In many ways this should be easy.
Our younger generation in particular is very open to modern ideas and ways of thinking. A large number of the younger generation speak English or German; and it seems that nearly everyone has a smart phone and uses internet social media on a daily basis.
Kosovo Albanians, which constitute 93 percent of the total population, know Europe and the US well and are firmly oriented toward the West. Kosovo is also home to non-majority communities of Serbs, Bosniaks, Turks, and Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians. Many Kosovars have lived in Europe as refugees, or most have relatives in the large Kosovar diaspora in Switzerland, Germany and the US with whom they are in constant contact.
But owing largely to our long and, at times turbulent, history, we face a number of challenges, too. An overarching challenge facing those of us working to develop Kosovo is the widespread existence of informality and informal relations in Kosovo society. In particular, the level of informality in the land sector is an impediment to economic productivity. In short, informal rights in property create unrealized capital.
Informality in the land sector takes many forms: land has often been bought and sold on the basis of oral agreements, without any documentation. And many land records are outdated, because families have not formally undertaken inheritance proceedings. In many cases, even newly married couples regard their marriage as formal when they present themselves to the community as husband and wife and do not rush to register their marriage with the Civil Status Office.
There are many reasons for informal practices and many can also be traced to long traditions. In connection with inheritance, in particular, traditional customs and values also influence how land is divided among heirs, especially among men and women. Our Constitution and legislation, however, recognize the equal rights of men and women. Yet, in Kosovo today only 18% of women own property, and, according to a recent survey conducted by USAID, only 3.8% of women have inherited property from their parents. Women are often still excluded from inheritance proceedings; and those that take part in inheritance proceedings are usually expected to renounce their inheritance in favor of their brothers.
As with other traditional customs, strong patrilineal values likely arose as a survival strategy that was useful in its day to protect the sacred institution of family. But, the same values that served to protect our families in the past could be an impediment to the wellbeing of our families today. It is our duty to explain to our citizens the benefits that equal exercise of property rights brings to our own families. When a woman owns property, for example, she can use that property as collateral for a loan to develop her business, allowing her to become self-reliant and independent. When girls are independent, they are more likely to resist domestic violence. This is good for everyone.
Also, the fact that most women do not own property means that a significant portion of the population is unable to freely engage in economic activity, start their own businesses, create jobs and contribute fully to Kosovo’s economic growth.
Another challenge – in addition to tradition -- is posed by the current legal framework. The legal framework that Kosovo has inherited does not make it easy for Kosovo citizens to formalize their land rights. Over the 60 years leading up to Kosovo’s independence, different legal regimes governed Kosovo, and each of those regimes left legal legacies that were overlaid onto those of their predecessors.
The result is a body of laws governing property rights that is challenging, incomplete, and inconsistent to apply, and not entirely conducive to a civil society based on private ownership with a market economy. This further discourages the population from formalizing their property rights.
Kosovo’s recent, difficult past has provided further reasons for the challenges citizens face in formalizing their rights to property. Discriminatory legislation in the 1990s, instituted by the Milosevic regime, prohibited the sale of immovable property between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. Such legislation did not prevent people from buying or selling property. It only led to informal sales transactions that could not be registered in the cadastre.
Owing to the many complex reasons that have led to widespread informality in the land sector, outdated cadastral records are impeding the development of a vibrant land market in Kosovo. The lack of up-to-date, accurate legal and economic information makes it particularly difficult for both foreign and local investors to use land productively. Addressing informality in the land sector is key to lifting people out of poverty and instituting a sustainable model of economic growth that fosters equality and prosperity for all.
What is being done to address this situation?
Under my leadership, initially as Minister of Justice and now as Deputy Prime Minister, the Government, with USAID support, launched an ambitious initiative to develop a National Strategy on Property Rights, where all of the troublesome and counter-productive aspects of the legal framework governing property rights would be identified and addressed. We began that initiative in June 2015, and I am pleased to say that, after exhaustive research and analysis and a multi-stage review and discussion process that included all relevant Kosovo institutions and organizations and international donors, the Government adopted the National Strategy.
The Government will now undertake the second phase of the work – to implement the National Strategy and create a coherent, clear and modern legal framework designed to make it as easy as possible for our citizens to exercise their property rights. USAID will be supporting us strongly in this second phase, too.
In addition, USAID has been helping us carry out an extensive public outreach campaign through media spots and grass-roots community-level activities to bring to citizens’ attention the importance of formalizing their rights to property, as well as to encourage them to change their attitude and behavior surrounding women’s property rights. Because we have seen that it is social attitudes, rather than the law, that are contributing to how citizens exercise their rights to property.
We also need to make sure that public institutions apply the written law rather than reinforce customary attitudes at variance with the law. These public outreach activities are going to continue, and will have a particular focus on youth, to tap into one of Kosovo’s true assets – our youthful Western-oriented population.
I am confident that these efforts will go far in creating the legal and social changes necessary for us here in Kosovo to provide a better future for our children and our country.
Hajredin Kuçi is Kosovo's Deputy Prime Minister