The municipality of Kursumlija is the poorest in all of Serbia. But a determined lady mayor and fellow female officers intend to turn it into “a Serbian Switzerland.”
KURSUMLIJA -- The upper-floor windows of the desolate building on Kosovo Street are missing the glass. The display windows at street level are empty. Back when this town was part of Yugoslavia, 500 people worked at the local Konfekcija textile factory. "But nobody works there now," says Zoran, a toy shop owner in Kursumlija.
Every morning, the grey-haired Serb sets his inflatable wading pools and brightly-colored beach balls up on the sidewalk in front of his shop, and every evening fetches them – unsold – back inside. "The young people are moving to the big cities, and the ones who stay don't have jobs -- or money," he says. The Kosovo war, the world financial crisis, and "very bad privatization" have "finished" the place, says Zoran. "Kursumlija is dead."
Wood, metal and textile industries, three spas, trade with nearby Kosovo, and good railway links once made Kursumlija prosperous. In the early 1960s, the municipality and its 89 villages had a population of 53,000. But times have changed. There are presently barely 19,000 residents, and the community places last in all Serbian social statistics.
Kursumlija, located in traditionally patriarchal southern Serbia, is in many ways an unlikely place for a woman to head the government. Yet it would seem that in this badly struggling town, only women have the courage to make a fresh start.
Since December, a red-haired chemistry teacher, Vesna Jakovljevic, 47, has been mayor, and she's got a hefty majority (roughly 90%) of other women working with her in the Town Hall's top slots. "That's actually more by chance than anything else," says Jakovljevic. "It wasn't strategy or a quota system. Choices were made based on qualifications and personality."
Jakovljevic says that, for a long time, she merely observed the sad decline of the town where she was born. But before the last elections she realized it was time "to do something for the town I live in."
So on a pro-European, Democratic Party platform the mother of two fought her way to the mayorship. Her predecessor, however, a member of a right-wing coalition, wasn't prepared to cede the mayor's office to her. He even went on a hunger strike to avoid it. Only after the government in Belgrade intervened, and blocked the municipality's accounts, did he finally give in.
That meant that Jakovljevic moved into her new office three months late. Her take on the incident is that men in politics tend to look out more for "their personal interests' while "women go about things differently, have a wider perspective – and certainly don't put their own needs ahead of everything else."
High unemployment, low birth rate
With gallows humor, the new mayor describes her remote town on the border with Kosovo as "Serbia's appendix." She says that "it's difficult to play hostess when the house is empty. Our town is very poor, and it has huge problems."
Kursumlija's unemployment rate is 45%. The average salary is the equivalent of 180 euros. Only 15% of the streets are paved. Because of emigration, the birth rate went down by 20% again this year.
A Serbian paper, Blic, reported that while Kursumlija might have clean air and warm springs, it had the worst living conditions of anywhere in Serbia.
Back when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, the national pension fund used to send patients in their thousands to Kursumlija every year for cures. But five years ago, when the municipality finally finished building a road to the spa facilities, the facilities closed.
Shrubs now grow in the fountains and on the roof of the largest spa. "If we could get the mineral baths up and running again, it would set a lot of things in motion," the mayor says. "Our means to do so are limited, however. We need outside help."
Even the men employed at the municipality describe the women at the helm at Town Hall as "more persistent and responsible" than men. The women have already gotten Belgrade to free up some funds for a retirement home, a new sports hall and a garbage facility.
Jakovljevic describes contacts of the community coalition with their parties in Belgrade as being "good," but adds that they hadn't been particularly helpful in moving things forward.
A significant issue in this border area is political. The border with Kosovo is 105 km long. The 1999 Kosovo War was already hard enough for Kursumlija, but since the former province declared its independence in 2008 trade between Kosovo and Kursumlija has been paralyzed. The so-called "administrative line" that divides them has become Kursumlija's biggest impediment to development.
Both the town and Kursumlija farmers lost their major markets, says Jakovljevic. "We are anxious to at least on a local level normalize relations with Kosovo," she says.
Despite difficulties and apparently bleak perspectives, she refuses to change her optimistic outlook. There is no more beautiful place in Serbia, with as much development potential, she says. The energetic politician has plans to develop eco-tourism and equip sunny Kursumlija, with its many rivers, with hydro and solar power stations. She believes that Kursumlija could become "a Serbian Switzerland."
Jakovljevic believes that people in Kursumlija are fundamentally happy and positive by nature, but that difficult times that have lasted a very long time have taken their toll. "Many people just don't know what to do anymore."
She believes that, as a woman, it is easier for her to empathize with her fellow citizens. Her most difficult job, she says, is changing the way people have come to feel, to give them a more optimistic outlook. "At the end of the day, we all have to try to do everything we can to make things better here – so that things are finally good again."
But the active mayor has already lost toy merchant Zoran. "Politicians can talk," he says, disillusioned. "They work for the state -- so at least they get paid."
Read the original story in German
Photo - Kursumlija Municipality