Organising an international film festival amid a global pandemic is no small feat. But what happens when your internet provider — your only link to audiences — refuses to recognise that your country exists?
Since declaring independence in February 2008, Kosovo has been locked in a battle for recognition. While countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and most of the European Union, view Kosovo as a nation in its own right, others — including Spain, Ukraine, Russia, and Romania — classify the area as part of Serbia. For more than a decade, Kosovo has fought for greater international acceptance. But the tussle for recognition doesn’t just happen in the political sphere: it also spills over into the digital world.
French websites will end .fr, German websites will end .de, but .ks — the proposed country code for Kosovo — simply doesn’t exist
That means that unlike most countries, Kosovo doesn’t have top-level domain recognition. French websites will end .fr, German websites will end .de, and Irish websites will end .ie, but .ks — the proposed country code for Kosovo — simply doesn’t exist. And even if that doesn’t seem like a big deal, it can have a serious impact, especially as artists and creatives adapt to the digital-first, Covid-19 era.
Based in Pristina, DokuFest is one of the Balkans’ most celebrated film festivals. When they decided to launch a digital edition for 2020, they knew that they would need to learn new skills within just a few weeks. What they didn’t expect was that their newly-purchased software didn’t even list Kosovo as a possible working location.
“The first thing we noticed was that on the dropdown menu, there was no Kosovo,” Veton Nurkollari, Dokufest’s co-founder and head of programming, told The Calvert Journal. “I was vaguely aware that there were these digital problems, but not to this scale. I naively thought that all of this kind of thing had already been solved somehow. Then I started to realise it was a larger problem, and that it’s linked to state recognition.”
Nurkollari would soon find out that these digital quirks had very real-life consequences. Film festivals such as DokuFest have agreements with film distributors and producers to screen certain movies, but this agreement is usually only valid within certain borders. If a film festival only has the rights to screen a movie within one country, then they must ensure that only viewers from that country can access the film online. This is usually done via geo-blocking. Each computer has an IP address, which flags up which country it’s in when it connects to the internet. But because Kosovo doesn’t have digital recognition, those IP addresses are linked to other countries instead — usually the nearest country that is recognised. That means that IP addresses for computers in Kosovo will show up as being online in Albania, North Macedonia, or even Serbia — with whom ties remained strained — depending on where they are in the country. There is simply no easy way to recognise all the computers within Kosovo’s borders in one fell swoop.
“Most distributors were not happy to open the film up to include more territories than just Kosovo,” says Nurkollari. “We had to explain that we physically could not limit users to just Kosovo. We had to include Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia.”
Many companies were ultimately understanding, but some distributors barred or limited their screenings. “In the end, only one of the films just didn’t screen online at all,” says Nurkollari. “For others, I’d say between eight or ten films, we had to block out certain countries, usually Serbia. But when we blocked IP addresses from Serbia, we were also cutting off users from part of Kosovo.”
It’s not only festivals which are facing problems. Campaign groups such as Domain for Kosovo say that the country’s lack of digital sovereignty is impacting everyone, from the government to individual artists.
“A domain name is a symbol for your national brand,” explains Chiayo Kuo. Originally from Taiwan — a nation which also struggles for international recognition — she founded Domain for Kosovo while living in the country in 2017. “Your domain name is a marketing opportunity; it lets the world know where that website or company is from. People know that Spark.me, the biggest internet event in the Balkans, is held in Montenegro, all thanks to those letters: .me.”
As Kosovo becomes a stronger player in the European and global market, that lack of digital recognition can have an impact on companies trying to spread their brand. Tactica, an SEO and digital marketing company based in Prishtina, say that just being a Kosovan country is a major-selling point for clients from countries such as France, Germany and the UK.
“There are major advantages of being a Kosovan business,” says Blendrit Elezaj, Tactica’s managing partner. “We are known as a young country which is very English-language orientated, which is nearby but still cost effective. At first, we didn’t think it was important, but now we see: when companies outsource, they want to be able to call their partners during their own working hours. In terms of time zones, Kosovo is just an hour out from places like London. You want those benefits to be recognised with services we provide: we want to say where we’re from.”
“In 2020, Google is all about local results. And how can you have good local results if one of the major indicators of that is your country domain?”
But lacking a national domain level doesn’t just stop Kosovo from making its mark on the international stage: it also holds up people to connect locally, including artists and creatives looking to engage their local audience or find customers nearby. Search engines prioritise websites from a user’s local area, meaning that people in the UK are more likely to see British websites, and people from Australia are more likely to see Australian ones — even though both countries share a common language. Kosovan websites, which usually use the United States’ .com, or the more global .net, are therefore left struggling to cut through the noise. The sheer number of .com sites means that it’s also more difficult and more expensive to find a catchy .com website name — another barrier pushing Kosovo’s creative businesses to the bottom of search engines’ results pages.
“In search terms, it’s a huge disadvantage,” says Elezaj. “In 2020, Google is all about local results. And how can you have good local results if one of the major indicators is your country domain?” To get around the problem, Tactica usually advises its clients to create a Google Business account which will work with the search engine’s GPS or location services, as well as leaning heavily on Kosovo-related keywords and building links to other Kosovo-based websites. “But I think it’s just one of those things that people internationally take for granted,” says Elezaj.
But as Kuo points out, the crux of all of these problems is economic. Each time a Kosovan business or individual buys a .com domain name, that money goes to an American company, rather than the Kosovan group. In Taiwan, says Kuo, profits from the .tw domain name go to an NGO which aids the country’s digital development. Other countries meanwhile float entire economies on sales of their domain name, notably the Pacific island of Tuvalu, which earned 10 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2010 from sales of .tv. Many experts expect to see an uptick of new domains as the Covid-19 crisis continues and more events and services move online. But none of that revenue will come to Kosovo itself, where it could be redirected to areas of the arts — and sectors which rely on, such as the hospitality industry — which have been hit hard by lockdown.
“For the city, [the festival’s move online had been] a big blow financially. Hotels were empty, bars and restaurants were empty, and they would have been counting on that boost from the festival,” says Nurkollari.
For now, Kosovo’s artists and businesses are still finding solutions amid the Covid-19 crisis. DokuFest say they have no concrete plans for next year, but are looking at bundling IP addresses which they know are linked to computers inside Kosovo to ensure that software can be targeted to reach more of the country for online screenings.
Kosovan people are proud of their country; they want that international recognition. And I think more and more people will see this
Yet ultimately, the fight will remain closely linked to the battle for greater recognition. ICANN, the organisation which creates domain names, has several criteria that countries must fulfil to get a top-level domain, namely recognition by the International Organisation for Standardisation. That in turn depends on recognition from UN sources such as the Country Names Bulletin, which currently does not feature Kosovo. In the face of such bureaucracy, the push for digital sovereignty will have to be international, says Kuo.
“Ultimately, very few people know about these problems,” she says. “We need people to put more pressure on the government, and with more events going online, we hope that more people might become more aware. Kosovan people are proud of their country; they want that international recognition. And I think more and more people will see this as a difficulty which needs to be solved.”
Others hope that international brands and chains will begin to push the cause as they enter the local market, after struggling to reach Kosovo’s growing middle class via localised websites. “Kosovo is becoming a larger market and people will want to serve the market well,” says Elezaj. “The political push is always important, but I think it’ll be commercial needs that make this more and more relevant. Businesses will push for it.”
Either way, there’s little chance of Kosovo’s digital sphere backing away from the digital world. What Dokufest have learned this year is that there’s huge potential online and they have no doubt that they’ll at least partially host next year’s programme digitally.
“What we learned [this year] is that there’s such huge potential online that at least part of next year’s programme will certainly go digital,” says Nurkollari. “We are looking into statistics now, but already our very modest music section had about 50,000 views — we would never do that physically. Our viewing numbers are twice, three times, four times higher than what we would have had at the physical festival. Yes, a view is a view — it could have been a five-minute click — but at least there is reach.”