Winning the Balkans to Lose Them

Sunday, April 30, 2000

There is some good news in the place we should now, realistically, call Kosova, and it's repeated all over the battered province. The main street of every town looks like a do-it-yourself exhibition. Small shops contain everything you need to rebuild a house, from bricks and timber through electrical cables and drainpipes to the all-important rugs and coffee cups. A family I have visited several times in Malisevo, once the capital of the KLA and "the most dangerous place in Europe," has such a shop, newly built with money sent from Germany by its Gastarbeiter (foreign worker) son. The father cautiously estimates his daily profit at 35–40 deutsche marks (US$17–$21). He hopes to rebuild his own house on the earnings from selling reconstruction materials to others.

In the trashed bazaar of what used to be the Serbian city of Pec and is now the Albanian city of Pejë, children have painted the ruins with brightly colored frescoes. There's a thriving market and even a couple of jewelers' shops. Young girls stand in the mud, distributing calendars for Ramadan.

In sum, most of the Kosovars who were expelled have come home; they are surviving and will eventually rebuild. Here, however, the good news ends. For Kosova today is an almighty mess. The province for which NATO fought the first war in its history is now the most ambitious project of true international administration in the history of the United Nations. The experiment is not going well.

A Violent Chaos: The Albanization of Kosova

Thanks to us, Kosova ends with an a—the Albanian as opposed to the Serbian spelling. A stands for Albanian. It also, at the moment, stands for Anarchy. Take A for Albanian first. It's now entirely clear that the NATO intervention has decisively resolved, in favor of the Albanians, a Serb-Albanian struggle for control of this territory that goes back at least 120 years. This was neither the stated nor the real intention of Western policymakers.

Although most Serbs don't believe it, the representatives of the so-called international community are genuine and even passionate in their desire to see a future for the Serbs in Kosova. Dr. Klaus Reinhardt, the impressive German general who now commands the multilateral, NATO-led military force (KFOR), thumps his right fist into his left palm as he tells me that he will bring Serbs back to live again in their homes, even though those homes have been torched and plundered by Albanians since KFOR marched in. Bernard Kouchner, the very French head of the United Nations mission (UNMIK), tells me: "History will judge us on our ability to protect a minority [i.e., the Serbs] inside another minority [i.e., the Albanians in Yugoslavia]."


The province for which NATO fought the first war in its history is now the most ambitious project of true international administration in the history of the United Nations. The experiment is not going well.


These are bold terms on which to invite history's judgment. For the reality on the ground in Kosova is one of almost total ethnic separation. Many Serbs fled to Serbia proper when KFOR marched in last June. Most of the rest have subsequently been driven into Serbian enclaves by intimidation and outright terror from returning Albanians. Particularly among the younger generation of Albanians, who have known Serbs only as remote oppressors, there is a growing intolerance of all ethnic others (including Roma and Muslim Slavs). People under thirty make up more than half the population, and young Kosovars manifest a thirst for revenge that sickens not just foreigners but many among the older generation of Kosovars, who still have personal memories of peaceful coexistence with the Serbs.

Just before I arrived, an elderly Serb professor was lynched by a mob celebrating the Albanian "flag day" in Pristina. There used to be some forty thousand Serbs living in Pristina; now there are just a few hundred. The exquisite Serbian monastery of Decani has lost all the lay Serbs who used to sustain it. When the monks need to go shopping, they travel under Italian KFOR escort to Montenegro. In Podujevo, British troops mount a twenty-four-hour guard over two remaining Serb grandmothers—"and the Albanians would slot them if we didn't," a British officer remarks, using a slang term for "kill." It is entirely fitting to speak, in this context, of reverse ethnic cleansing. Yet this ethnic cleansing has been carried out under the very noses and tank barrels of more than forty thousand international troops.

Momcilo Trajkovic, the leading Serb politician still in Kosova, fled Pristina after being shot at through his front door by an Albanian. He now lives in what he calls the Serb "ghetto" around the monastery of Gracanica, an area a few miles across. When he wants to travel anywhere outside the ghetto, he needs a KFOR escort. "This means," he explains, "that I can go to Pristina to meet President Clinton but I can't go there to buy a loaf of bread." He's still indomitable. When I ask him how long people can live in such a ghetto, he replies, "A thousand years!" They outlived more than five hundred years of Ottoman rule, he says, and they'll survive this. But he is alone in his heroic optimism.


Kosova has experienced what could be called a reverseethnic cleansing. Yet this ethnic cleansing has been carried out under the very noses and tank barrels of more than forty thousand international troops.


Besides these enclaves, which contain perhaps some twenty thousand to thirty thousand Serbs, there is an area north of a line running roughly east-west through the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. This area makes up less than 10 percent of the whole territory and is contiguous with Serbia proper. Here, an estimated seventy thousand Serbs still rule the roost. The situation in the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica is astonishing. Passing the barbed-wire barriers on the bridge over the Ibar River, my papers are checked by French soldiers as I enter the Serb-controlled northern sector. French, British, and Scandinavian troops patrol this part, too, but within a few yards of a British armored car I am accosted by several burly Serbs in plainclothes, armed with walkie-talkies.

They sharply ask my business, and my resourceful Albanian interpreter rapidly becomes "Dragan Trajkovic from Belgrade." We walk up through a peaceful-looking Serb town—schoolgirls giggling on their way home, couples quietly going shopping—to the regional hospital, which is run by Serbs, though with a French director and French soldiers at the gate.

Here we meet a doctor who is also a member of a Belgrade-based, moderate nationalist opposition party. He explains that all the salaries of local people are paid from Belgrade and that their electricity, water, and other supplies come from the north. "The multiethnic concept of Kosovo is finished," he says. Partition is the only answer. Back in the southern part of town, the KLA-appointed unofficial Albanian mayor, Dr. Bajram Rexhepi, a surgeon who tended the KLA wounded, earning the affectionate nickname "Doctor Terrorist," retorts that this is intolerable. If nothing changes by the spring, he says, the Albanians will again resort to pressure, even force, to storm the bridge over the Ibar River. Some of the local French soldiers have been seen carousing with Serb paramilitaries, he claims, and are pro-Serb, but he thinks their commanders are not.

In truth, the refusal to force open the bridge over the Ibar is not just French policy but that of the entire international administration, both civil and military. For if the guardians of the bridge let the massed Albanians surge across, the Serbs would either fight or flee—probably first one, then the other. NATO and the United Nations would again be parties to ethnic cleansing. So, instead, KFOR and UNMIK ineffectually struggle to implement a few schemes for Albanian-Serb cooperation—in the hospital, in a factory—that do nothing to change the overall reality of partition. Indeed, Kouchner has now tacitly acknowledged this, proclaiming his medium-term goal to be no longer a "multiethnic" society but "peaceful coexistence" between largely separate communities.


It's hard to convey what a chaotic, threatening place the Albanian 90 percent of Kosovo is. There are still virtually no police, and there is no effective law.


Yet this hate-filled Albanian-Serb separation is only half the story—and for the future of Kosova not even the most important half. More important is the worsening state of anarchy. It's hard to convey what a chaotic, threatening place the Albanian 90 percent of Kosova is. There are still virtually no police, and there is no effective law.

Meanwhile, the Albanian Mafia has entered with a vengeance. Young women are afraid to go out at night in Pristina for fear of being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Drug consumption among the students has soared, as the pushers get to work. In the last week of November, there were twenty-two recorded murders, several of them cold-blooded executions. The independent newspaper publisher Veton Surroi, who in the summer courageously denounced Albanian revenge killings against Serbs, sees his prophecy coming true: What began with Albanians murdering Serbs ends with Albanians murdering one another. Before and during the war, Kosovars kept assuring me that Kosova would not be like Albania: corrupt, anarchic, ruled by the gun and the gang. Increasingly, it is. The Albanization of Kosova is taking place in a way no ordinary Kosova Albanian wanted. The gangsters have stepped into the vacuum left by the slowness of the West.

KFOR tries to do what it can. Sometimes its efforts are simply comical. As cars speed down the main street of one small town, a Swedish soldier steps out waving a little sign saying 30 kph (kilometers per hour). The cars ignore him. On the other side of the road I see a local man shaking with uncontrollable laughter at this ludicrous yet emblematic scene. The West meets the Balkans.

More seriously, the KFOR forces have set up detention camps, with hundreds of suspected murderers and violent criminals. "But then," an exasperated officer tells me, "the Albanian judge comes and releases all the Albanians, the Serb judge does the same for the Serbs." Mere looting and plundering earns just "a cuff round the ear and 'don't do it again.'" The soldiers always knew they could never be a substitute for a proper police. The then KFOR commander General Sir Michael Jackson told me in May of last year, when they were still waiting in Macedonia, that the key to success would be international police. Disastrously, UNMIK has only got about eighteen hundred of the six thousand international police Kouchner requested when he arrived in July. And six thousand would still be too few.


Before and during the war, Kosovars kept assuring me that Kosova would not be like Albania: corrupt, anarchic, ruled by the gun and the gang. Increasingly, it is.


Just a few hundred local police have graduated from the new police academy. Behind them, there is still no effective structure of law, judges, courts, or prisons. UNMIK has taken six months to secure agreement on which body of law should be applied, let alone starting to apply it.

This is the greatest failure of international administration but not the only one. Six months after the world moved in, the province still has nothing that could be called a working government.

An Experiment Gone Terribly Wrong

There are, it seems to me, five main reasons for the way this unprecedented experiment in the local application of world government has thus far gone wrong.

First, you could hardly think of a more difficult place in which to try it. It's not just the physical devastation—with more than a third of the houses destroyed or damaged—it's also the social and psychological devastation wrought by ten years of oppression, followed by war, forced exile, and return. Further dislocation is caused by the tens of thousands of country people flooding into Pristina because they have nowhere to live for the winter.

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Second, there is the disunity, corruption, and irresponsibility of the local Kosovar Albanian politicians, among whom Kouchner hopes to find partners in a joint administration. Five years ago, he would still have had one relatively well defined local structure to deal with, the underground administration of the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), headed by the unofficial president, Ibrahim Rugova—no shining light, but at least committed to peaceful change. Now there is another major movement, the KLA, which—together with its new Sinn Fein, the PPDK—believes that it has matchless legitimacy flowing from the armed struggle for independence. Several lesser competitors swirl in the background.


There is something truly touching about this Babel of Azerbaijani soldiers, French intellectuals, Swedish diplomats, and Zambian policemen trying to make a reality of a liberal internationalist dream. I wish it could work.


The leader of the unofficial KLA government, Hashim Thaci, known here as Albright's Darling, greets me in a smart blue suit and smoothly makes all the right noises about human rights, tolerance, and stability. "We didn't make war to have this anarchy," he says. But all the time a curious, slightly sinister smile plays on his lips, as if he's really thinking, "What a huge joke that the United States and the whole Western world and this man from Oxford are all treating me, the kid from Drenica and the Zurich Bahnhof, with such respect." Well-informed senior Western sources think it is a bad joke since they claim to have firm evidence that Thaci has been directly involved in KLA racketeering and strong-arm tactics.

In small towns and villages, the self-appointed KLA bosses behave as if they are the masters now. Local people complain bitterly about the unjust way they distribute international aid. (The mother of one family I met shows me all they have received: one cardboard box, marked, in some Sussex spinster's hand, "Teenage Girls' Underwear.") In many places they intimidate the local LDK leaders who are still loyal to Rugova—so much so that in one village in the KLA heartland of Drenica, the LDK representatives did not even dare to meet Kouchner. "Thaci thinks he's Castro," the independent newspaper editor Baton Haxhiu says. And even Kouchner wearily comments, "Thaci wants to run the whole thing."

Yet this insolent arrogance of power alienates many Kosovars. Wherever I go, I find evidence of strong support for the LDK, especially for Ibrahim Rugova.

Rugova wants three sorts of election as soon as possible: (1) local elections, (2) what he calls "national" (i.e., all-Kosova) elections, and (3) direct presidential ones. The KLA wants local and national ones, then parliament to elect the president—because they fear that Rugova would win a direct election. Kouchner hopes to start with local elections, but first the citizens and voters have to be registered, a process that has barely begun. Autumn 2000 seems the earliest feasible time; such a contest is likely to sharpen the local rivalries.

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The third reason that things are going wrong is the complexity and chaos of the international presence itself, which matches and compounds the local Kosovar confusion. Locals proudly comment, "We're Balkanizing the international community!" But the international community does that all by itself. On paper, there's a structure that is drawn in KFOR documents—this is not a joke—as a Greek temple. The base is KFOR, providing security. Then there are four columns: UNMIK, for civil administration; the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), for restoring people's homes; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for elections and media; and the European Union (EU), for economic reconstruction. The pediment is marked "a stable and peaceful Kosovo." Very neat. But the practice, that's a different matter.


The U.N. occupation force had to go around with a begging bowl to raise the $250 million needed for this year's budget. For the price of a few days' bombing, we are throwing Kosova away.


All these international organizations have their own distinctive bureaucratic styles and political constraints. All compete with one another. All are subject to innumerable national pressures. Their separate propaganda sheets make revealing reading. The European Commission Task Force, for the EU, has a Reconstruction Weekly. The lead item in the November 21–27, 1999, issue is a report of a one-day workshop on management training, which apparently concluded that "top-level managers in socially-owned companies . . . would require training on change and organisational behaviour, quality management, public relations, international markets, as well as general management development." The bureaucratic language takes you straight back to Brussels. One wonders what polished consultant was paid what enormous fee (a year's living for ten large Kosovar families?) to organize this ringing statement of the blindingly obvious. The report goes on to discuss the small- and medium-size enterprise (SME) sector: "To acquire a fully comprehensive assessment of training needs, it was recommended that a survey of all existing SMEs be undertaken to define more clearly training and related requirements (such as technology, markets, clients, and partnerships)." To anyone who has seen the chaotic reality on the ground, this idea of a "survey of all [!] existing SMEs" in Kosova is utterly ludicrous.

Turning to the KFOR Chronicle, I particularly enjoy one headline: "GREEKS ORGANIZE THE CHAOS." Well, exactly. General Reinhardt, who has thirty-four different national contingents under his command, tells me, "Don't think they do something just because I order them to." No, they all go off and ask their national governments first. I find that people from KFOR, UNMIK, and OSCE privately spend much time blaming one another—just as the Kosovar politicians do.

In fairness, one should say that the United Nations has never before been charged with such a complex piece of international government, at such short notice. Many dedicated, idealistic, professional people work long hours doing useful things. There is something truly touching about this Babel of Azerbaijani soldiers, French intellectuals, Swedish diplomats, and Zambian policemen trying to make a reality of a liberal internationalist dream. I wish it could work.

Behind the conflicts of the local mortals, there are the demigods squabbling in New York, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing. It is no secret that Kouchner has spent much of his time trying to secure agreement from the U.N. secretary-general and the Security Council to this or that minute step of local self-government. When I ask him about this, he startlingly replies, "New York does not exist!" (I think it might sound better in French.) In a conversation that I would characterize as unfocused, Kouchner gives me the impression of passion and Gallic eloquence but not of masterly administrative skills. And to make this thing work needs a politician-administrator of genius.

The problems run from the very top to the very bottom. For example: UNMIK is trying to recruit judges, customs officials, and teachers at salaries of some 100 to 500 deutsche marks (DMs) a month. But the same people can earn DM1,000 to 2,000 a month working as interpreters or simply as drivers for those same international organizations. Thus the international community unwittingly defeats its own objectives. ("And," a Kosovar friend adds, "do you think customs officials on DM500 a month are going to collect many customs dues? Of course they'll take bribes instead.") My own driver-interpreter is a judge, dismissed by the Serbs in 1991. He won't go back to being a judge for three reasons: because of the money; because he fears his own dear fellow Albanians will make trouble for him if he convicts some of their choicer brethren; and because he wants to emigrate to Canada anyway, to give his children a better life.

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The fourth reason for the mess is the deep ambiguity of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, which, as a paper bridge between the Western and the Russian/Chinese positions, declares that the province is at once subject to the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and will enjoy substantial autonomy and self-government. Virginity and motherhood combined. This is, as one senior UNMIK official candidly puts it, "a nightmare." The Russians and Chinese cry blue murder at every step toward self-government, such as having a budget in deutsche marks rather than Yugoslav dinars or instituting customs controls or issuing separate identity papers. Yet such steps are the only way out of anarchy.

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Last, but by no means least, it's a mess because the world really does not want to be here. NATO and the United Nations stumbled into this experiment as they stumbled into the war itself. Each individual member state counts the cost. The reason the international police, to take the single most important failure, have been so slow in coming is that national governments have not found them and won't pay for them—including, as Kouchner bitterly remarks, his own French government. African countries protest, What about us! International attention has already moved on to other crises. Chechnya, not Kosova, now produces the CNN effect. UNMIK had to go around with a begging bowl to raise the $250 million needed for this year's core administration budget. It's often been said but still bears repeating: For the price of a few days' bombing, we are throwing Kosova away.

This place supposedly took its name from "the field of the blackbirds," Kosovo Polje, and in the bleak midwinter blackbirds still gather in vast numbers to squawk and caw in the trees of Pristina. As I write up my notes in the early morning of my last day, they flock and swirl outside my window, blackening the dawn sky above the offices of the International Criminal Tribunal, as if to shriek, "We know where the bodies are buried!" Then they swarm over the main headquarters of the U.N. administration, as if to crow, "You'll never bring peaceful order to this place!" It's a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds, and it eerily heightens my sense of grim foreboding. The West won the war. I fear we are losing the peace.—January 13, 2000.