PRISTINA, Kosovo – Jubilant throngs gathered around gigantic letters spelling "NEWBORN," when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia seven years ago. Today, there's a new national symbol: The bus stop where hundreds of people gather every day to flee a country they've given up on.
High hopes have turned to despair as Kosovars on Tuesday mark the anniversary of their dream of nationhood coming true. Tens of thousands of people, including at least 5,000 schoolchildren, have already fled on the nightly bus journey through Serbia and into the European Union. The mass movement of people — which some describe as an exodus — is a sign of simmering discontent with the governing elites in Europe's youngest, poorest and most isolated country. The departures, coupled with violent January protests, threaten to export Kosovo's economic and social troubles beyond its borders.
"I am so disappointed with my own place, I just want to leave," said Bislim Shabani, an ethnic Albanian heading to Germany with his wife and four children.
Shabani said he worked in a company that went bust in a botched privatization, leaving many workers mired in debt: "They owe me 12 months of wages. I couldn't provide for my family any longer."
Lured by promises of a secure future abroad, many are happy to turn their backs on a country with rampant unemployment and corrupt officials — who critics say enjoy the protection of a justice system that caters to the elite.
Mirsad Muliqi waved goodbye to his brother and his family boarding a bus to Serbia, then said: "They just want to get out of this filthy place." The unemployed Muliqi said he would follow as soon as his brother settles down in Germany.
Europe's richest country has borne the brunt of the flow of refugees, with some 18,000 Kosovars entering since the beginning of the year. Official figures in Kosovo show that at least 30,000 Kosovars have sought asylum, mostly in Germany, since August. The figure, however, does not include migrants that stay illegally and do not register with the authorities. Hungarian police say over 23,000 migrants have been detected crossing their border in 2015 alone, the vast majority coming from Kosovo.
Almost none has any chance of receiving asylum, German authorities say, because they are not considered political refugees. The usual fate of those who receive a rejection letter: deportation.
To stem the flow, German border patrols have been deployed to secure the border between Serbia and Hungary and help with passport controls of people from Kosovo.
Unemployment in Kosovo stands at 30 percent, according to official statistics. It is highest among young people aged 15 to 24 — at a staggering 56 percent. Some 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.
President Atifete Jahjaga toured Kosovo cities recently in a bid to halt the exodus. In some towns she was met by hostile crowds accusing politicians of getting rich at the expense of citizens.
Anger boiled over in the streets of Pristina twice last month as stone-throwing anti-government protesters clashed with police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The government blamed the unrest on opposition parties wanting to stage a coup.
But Ramush Haradinaj, an opposition leader who backed the protests, said the dissatisfaction is due to stalled economic and social progress.
"People are not satisfied merely by the most basic rights," Haradinaj told The Associated Press. "They want to know when Kosovo can join the EU, in what time frame? When will it no longer suffer from corruption? We are not talking about the Kosovo citizen who just wants to be free. We are talking about a citizen that has higher expectations."
Kosovo came under NATO control in 1999 after the alliance bombed Serbia for 78 days to make it end its onslaught on ethnic Albanians. Since breaking away from Serbia, Kosovo has been recognized by 108 countries. Kosovo's recent membership in sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee has been welcomed as a major victory in its road to full-fledged statehood.
But Serbia's rejection of Kosovo's independence has prevented further recognitions and helped to isolate it internationally. The country's 1.8 million inhabitants are subject to strict visa requirements and can only travel visa-free to a handful of countries, mainly neighboring Albania and Turkey. Kosovars are able to flow into Serbia under an EU-brokered deal for Serbia to recognize Kosovo-issued identification papers without recognizing its statehood.
The ease of travel to Turkey has also encouraged hundreds of Kosovo Muslims to join the ranks of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. Alarmed at the prospect of ending up with battle-hardened religious extremists, Kosovo lawmakers passed legislation to jail returning fighters for up to 15 years and rounded up over 50 suspected radicals, including imams.
Political analyst Dukagjin Gorani blames the simmering troubles on former rebel leaders who steered the province to independence from Serbia — but have become detached from their compatriots. He said they are now moving Kosovo toward "social revolt and political discontent."
"Kosovo has ... been systematically robbed and enslaved in the name of liberation," Gorani said, referring to officials from the Kosovo Liberation Army who fought the separatist war and are now in leading positions.
A European Union police and justice mission that helped local authorities fight corruption has launched a series of indictments and investigations against senior officials. But no sentences have been handed down — triggering claims that the accused have strong-armed the fledgling legal system.
Gorani said the situation could explode into unrest at any time.
"You know how it is with the Balkans," he said. "It is always a powder keg and at the heart of which Kosovo remains with a very short fuse."
Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report