Wednesday, December 26, 2007

New beginnings?Could 2008 see the Balkans finally shake off the shadow of war?

Dramatic 2008 beckons for Balkans
By Nick Thorpe BBC News

Among the many strange ironies of history, consider this: the independence of Kosovo in the first half of 2008 will be overseen by Slovenia, as rotating president of the EU.


The richest corner of the old Yugoslavia - and the first to escape from it in 1991 - will steer, from Brussels, the rocky road to independence of its poorest segment.
It took Yugoslavia, that once amiable giant, 17 years to die.
2008 is set to be a dramatic year in the Balkans, though probably not as tragic as some prophesy.

Kosovo, Bosnia, and Macedonia all have intricate safety nets, thanks both to the international presence and the experience gathered in many previous storms.
Serbia has perhaps the greatest potential for international isolation and misery.
The new government and assembly in Kosovo will begin quietly implementing the Ahtisaari plan for conditional independence, despite the sometimes dignified, sometimes desperate, protests of Belgrade.

Kosovo Police Service
The European Union will rapidly phase in its civilian, 1,800-strong law and justice mission, just as the UN phases out.

A poll win for Tomislav Nikolic could damage Serbia's EU hopes
The crucial role in ensuring a peaceful transition to independence will be played by the multi-ethnic Kosovo Police Service (KPS).

The 7,000-strong force, with many Serbs in its ranks, will be in the frontline at a local level, reassuring people with their presence, and searching cars to minimise the movement of weapons.

Behind them the UN police - in place until mid-2008 - can provide extra muscle.
And, finally, the Nato-led peacekeepers of K-For are on call to intervene if law and order breaks down. But that may not be necessary.

If Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party wins January's presidential elections, the potential for Serbia's public anger, and international isolation grows exponentially
As Kosovo slips quietly away, radical Serb leaders in the predominantly Serb north will declare that they want nothing to do with an independent Kosovo.

Theirs is above all a defensive position. They will prepare for "Albanian attacks". But the Albanians will be on their best behaviour, under the watchful eyes of the EU.
The KPS, UN police force, and K-For will continue to patrol in the north too. UN Security Council resolution 1244 speaks of both an "international civilian and military presence".

EU countries and the US say that is quite enough to legalise the new EU mission.
President Boris Tadic of Serbia has already announced that his country will, quite properly, take its case to the International Court of Justice.

Serbia's promised economic blockade will affect less than 20% of Kosovo's imports, and can be sidestepped easily with increased imports from Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania.
Threats to cut off the water and electricity supply from the Gazivoda reservoir in the north are serious, but would rebound on the north.

Water is treated in the south, then sent back. KFOR soldiers are set to secure the reservoir.

Presidential race
The central question of the year is how Serbia copes with the trauma of the loss of Kosovo.

Kosovan towns such as Mitrovica are divided over independence
The presidential election due on 20 January will influence that.
If Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party wins again he will keep Serbia firmly on the road to EU integration - despite Kosovo.

If Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party wins, the potential for Serbia's public anger, and international isolation grows exponentially.
Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, is a nationalist who only appears moderate when set against the radicals.

His Serbian Democratic Party is being squeezed all the time between Tadic's pro-Europe stance, and the blood and thunder rhetoric of Nikolic and his master, Vojislav Seselj, on trial for war crimes in the Hague.

This looks like the year Kostunica will have to choose one camp or the other. The presidential race will be close.
If Nikolic wins, the EU can be expected to turn its back on Serbia again. Investment will dry up. And other parts of the Balkans may benefit from increased international help.
If Tadic wins, the pro-Europe camp wins with him.

Quarrelsome politicians
In Bosnia, a compromise in November over a police reform which goes some way to re-integrating the country, was a precondition for further steps to EU membership.

Many in the Balkans hope EU entry will lift living standards
The sudden shock of being thrown to the end of a very long queue to join the EU seems to have done Bosnia's quarrelsome politicians some good.
The Bosnian Serb leadership are interested above all in preserving their own fiefdom - the Serb Republic in Bosnia. Theirs is a tale of power and money, coloured with identity.

With the sun from Brussels shining a little brighter in the streets of Banja Luka, as well as Sarajevo, there is no reason why Kosovan independence would encourage them to revive their long-lost dream of joining Serbia. The Nato summit in Bucharest in April will be crucial in terms of the overall stability of the Balkans. Macedonia, Albania and Croatia have all worked hard on securing their invitations to join the alliance.

Despite what its president describes as "a wasted year" in 2007, the promise of Nato membership should soothe troubled brows in Skopje.
None of Serbia's neighbours - Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria included - are in any hurry to recognise an independent Kosovo.
But the future of the Balkans will depend on investment, and wages - not the race to set up diplomatic representation in Pristina.
2008 could be the year the clouds of war finally disappear.

Balkan bagatelle

Balkan bagatelle

Dec 13th 2007-The Economist.

The delicate diplomacy over the handling of Kosovo's looming independence


A JOKE has been circulating among diplomats concerned with the Balkans. The reply to the question, “what comes after December 10th?” is “December 11th.” And so it has proved. The 10th was the deadline for a mission led by ambassadors from the European Union, America and Russia to report to the United Nations on the outcome of negotiations between Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo. In the event, the talks produced so little that the report was handed in early.

It would be wrong to conclude that nothing has changed after the failure of the troika's talks. The end of almost two years of diplomatic efforts to find an agreement means that one chapter on Kosovo has closed and a new one is opening. A period of turbulence lies ahead, and it could even be accompanied by a few spasms of violence. But it is almost inconceivable that there will be a general return to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.



Kosovo is the last remaining piece of the former Yugoslav jigsaw. Some 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians who have long demanded independence. Unlike the six countries that have already emerged from the old Yugoslavia, Kosovo was not a republic but a province—and one with a special historical significance for Serbs. Serbia's present leaders have offered maximum autonomy, but Kosovo's Albanians have said they will settle for nothing less than independence.

On December 19th the UN Security Council will take up the question. Russia, Serbia's backer, will demand that talks continue. This will be rejected by America and the EU countries, who say there is nothing left to discuss. At the same time, Western diplomats are working out next steps. Serbia is to hold a two-round presidential election in January and February. The Kosovo Albanians are being asked to hold off declaring independence before then, in a bid to boost the chances of the pro-European incumbent, Boris Tadic.

The diplomats are trying to find a legal cover to replace the UN mission in Kosovo with one from the EU. This is proving hard. Kosovo is governed by the Security Council's resolution 1244, which says it is part of Yugoslavia, to which Serbia is the legal successor state. “On this the Serbs and the Russians probably have the law on their side,” sighs a top European diplomat. “But then this is a political decision, not a legal one.”

Once Kosovo declares independence, it is likely to be recognised by the Americans, most EU members and many Muslim countries. Serbia may try to blockade the new country, apart from the Serb-inhabited part of Mitrovica and the north that it already, in effect, runs. So this may turn into Europe's newest “frozen conflict”. Kosovo exports nothing to Serbia, but Serbian exports to Kosovo amount to €200m ($280m) a year. This trade may be diverted through Montenegro and Macedonia.

The biggest worry concerns the 50,000 or more Serbs who live in enclaves scattered across Kosovo proper. Most, but not all, seem to be staying put. If the birth of a new Kosovo is accompanied by violence these are the most vulnerable targets.

As for Serbia, it is at a fork in the road. The EU's leaders may soften the blow over Kosovo by waiving a precondition that the country co-operate in full with the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague before signing a stabilisation and association agreement that would bring it large sums of aid. But Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, says it is insulting to believe that his country would trade Kosovo for eventual EU membership, and even hints that his country might refuse to sign the deal. Others close to Mr Tadic retort that Serbia has nowhere else to go.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Kosovo: Escaping from limboland

Nov 17th, 2007 | NEW YORK
From Economist.com

Kosovo at the polls, as tension grows over its future


AFP

OUTSIDERS can be forgiven for not being able to tell much—from the names at least—about the Democratic Party of Kosovo, the Democratic League of Kosovo, the New Kosovo Alliance and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo. The main four parties competing in an election on Saturday November 17th are in fact quite different from each other. One is dominated by former guerrillas; another is run by a man indicted for war crimes; another was founded as the non-violent opposition to Slobodan Milosevic; a fourth is run by a construction tycoon promising investment and jobs for Kosovo.

The parties do, however, agree on the most important thing about Kosovo: that it should become independent. Whichever party wins is likely to declare Kosovo’s independence after December 10th. That date marks a deadline for mediators who are trying to get Serbia and Kosovo, the latter still technically a province of the former, to agree on the Kosovars' future status. The Serbian position has been that Kosovo could have “more than autonomy” but “less than independence”, citing Hong Kong as an example. For most in Kosovo independence is the one thing not negotiable.



The fate of Kosovo’s 2m people, 90% of whom are ethnically Albanian, matters to the outside world mainly because of the great powers paying it attention. NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 until Milosevic withdrew his soldiers from the province. Since then, it has lived in limbo under international supervision. But Russia, Serbia’s ally (partly because of their shared eastern Orthodox Christian tradition), has vetoed any UN approval of independence.

For Europe, too, Kosovo matters for foreign policy. Some guilt persists for past indecisiveness, when Europe's leaders were divided over how to react to the Yugoslav wars. Wider concern is how Kosovo's future could affect the whole Balkans now. Some in the Serb dominated part of Bosnia, for example, give warning that if Kosovo declares independence from Serbia, then they, too, will secede from the rest of Bosnia. No wonder the European Union takes a close interest as it ponders possible enlargement to include parts of the Balkans.

But ahead of the December deadline, talks remain deadlocked. The UN’s special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, has proposed a form of “supervised independence” for Kosovo. This would make it sovereign, but within certain limits, including some that already exist. A chunk of seats in the parliament would be reserved for Serbs (and another chunk for other minorities); the Serbian Orthodox church would get special protection; Serbian would be a co-equal official language with Albanian. The whole arrangement would be overseen, as with Bosnia, by an official from the EU with the power to annul laws or dismiss officials if they violate the agreement.

Russia is insisting that any status change must have the agreement of all parties. But for Kosovo’s Western backers it seems that more talks are unlikely to produce progress. Kosovo cannot remain in limbo forever, and its population will never consent to remain part of Serbia. Yet given a newly assertive Russian foreign policy, under Vladimir Putin, it will be difficult for Kosovo, backed by Western allies, simply to push on for independence regardless. It is not clear how many countries would recognise Kosovo as an independent country if the declaration lacked UN approval.

The election is unlikely to help much. Serbia and the Orthodox church have urged Serbs in Kosovo not to take part in the election as that would legitimise the poll. The prospects of effective dialogue either within Kosovo, or without, look dim indeed.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bosnian Politics: Cracking up

BANJA LUKA AND SARAJEVO-Oct 25th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Spurred by Russia, the Bosnian Serbs are making trouble again!


ON THE face of it, Bosnia is doing fine. The economy is forecast to grow by a healthy 6% this year. When politics is not at issue, Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats get on better now than at any time since the end of the war. But politics keeps rearing its head. The past week has seen battle joined in a power-struggle that will determine where real authority lies in Bosnia and even if, in the long run, it will survive.

At the end of the Bosnian war in 1995 the country was divided into two parts, a federation of Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims) and the Serbian Republika Srpska (RS). Croats and Serbs were unenthusiastic about being forced to remain in a Bosnian state, but accepted that this was the result of the war. To keep this complex show running, the peace agreement provided for an international governor-general to arbitrate between the Bosnians and intervene when necessary.

The last high representative, as he is known, believed it was time for Bosnians to run their own show, so he stepped back from political life. After all, he argued, the office was due to be closed in June 2007. The result was political gridlock and stagnation, so the office stayed open. An agreement with the EU, widely regarded as the first step towards membership, has been ready since 2006. But Bosnia's leaders have not been able to agree on a number of political reforms that are required first, especially of the police.

Enter Miroslav Lajcak, a highly regarded Slovak diplomat who took over as high representative in July. He tried to break the deadlock over police reform, and warned Bosnia's leaders that unless they agreed to it they would lose another opportunity to move forward on the EU track. They failed, and so on October 19th he unveiled the first of what he says is a series of proposals for big changes.

Mr Lajcak is demanding that the Bosnian parliament and government can no longer be blocked simply because their members refuse to show up, which is often the case now. Bosnia's Serbian leader, Milorad Dodik, erupted in fury. This, he said, meant that Croats and Bosniaks could outvote Serbs; and, in revenge, he threatened to withdraw all Serbs from state institutions. If this happened, it would lead to chaos. Bosnians still remember how the RS was formed on the eve of war in 1992, when the Serbs left Bosnia's institutions.

On October 22nd a meeting between Mr Lajcak and Mr Dodik appeared to calm tensions. Immediately afterwards Mr Dodik left for a meeting in Belgrade with Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, and Vladimir Titov, Russia's deputy foreign minister. The threats to bring political chaos to Bosnia then started again. “They should either stop this or reveal their real intentions,” says Mr Lajcak. Asked whether, if things got worse, he would use his legal power to sack Mr Dodik, he replied with a firm “Yes”.

The looming struggle is closely connected to Kosovo. Technically it is a part of Serbia. If it gains independence soon, it will strengthen the hands of those, such as Mr Dodik, who oppose the centralising of the Bosnian state and sometimes threaten RS independence. This week Serbia's leaders have weighed in with denunciations of Mr Lajcak, as have the Russians, who have previously co-operated well in Bosnia with their Western counterparts. Now it seems clear that they are opening a new line of confrontation with the West, which stretches via Kosovo to the dispute over America's proposed missile shield.

Western diplomats have shelved the idea of closing down Mr Lajcak's post. Russia has not, and in November Russia's agreement in the Security Council will be required to renew the mandate for the remaining 2,500 EU peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. A fight may be in the offing. And even if Russia agrees to the renewal of the mandate, the broader outlook for the region is not hopeful. Judy Batt of the EU's Institute for Security Studies, who is working with Mr Lajcak, says that “politics in Bosnia and Serbia now mean that the EU perspective for the whole region is dying.”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Serbia's future: Serbia's future

Oct 18th 2007
BELGRADE AND MITROVICA
From The Economist print edition

Some Serbs dream of a Russian alternative to the European Union

DOTTED across the Serbian north of the divided city of Mitrovica are pictures of its hero: Vladimir Putin. Russia, Kosovo's Serbs believe, has saved them from the independence demanded by its Albanians (Kosovars), who make up 90% of Kosovo's 2m people. It is too early to be sure they are right. But Western diplomats are worried by Serbia's dalliance with Russia.
Marko Jaksic, a member of Serbia's Kosovo negotiating team, helps to run northern Kosovo. He is a deputy leader of the party of Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister. If America and many European Union countries recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, he expects Serbia to offer Russia military bases “in Serbia, and especially on the border of Kosovo”. He adds that Serbia should abandon its bid to join the EU, and claims that Mr Kostunica thinks similarly but has less freedom to talk openly.

Such talk is meant to send chills down Western spines. If Serbia gave up trying to join the EU, not only would it return to the isolation of the 1990s but it could also drag the whole region down with it. How serious is the risk? Mr Kostunica's party is aligned with Mr Putin's United Russia party, and its official position is that Serbia should be neutral. Mr Kostunica has disparaged a potentially independent Kosovo as nothing but a “NATO state”.

A source close to President Boris Tadic, whose party is in uneasy coalition with Mr Kostunica, concedes that, if Kosovo's independence is recognised, it will be hard to instil “European values” in Serbia. Even Serbs who would secretly like to be shot of their troublesome southern province fear that full independence would be disastrous. They predict that Mr Kostunica would, if not formally end the country's bid for EU membership, at least slow it down, as well as trying to punish countries that recognise Kosovo and companies that trade there and in Serbia.

Yet the Russian alternative does not look appetising. The prospect of Russian bases in Serbia is “very unlikely”, says Ivan Vejvoda, who heads the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a big regional donor to good causes. Serbia is surrounded by the EU and NATO. “The Russian thing is a temporary, opportunistic thing, a balloon which will burst once we are over Kosovo,” he says. There is much excitement in Serbia about Russian companies moving in. On the list for privatisations that may interest them are JAT Serbian airlines, Belgrade airport, a mine in Bor and NIS, Serbia's oil company. Alexei Miller, head of Russia's energy giant, Gazprom, met Serbian leaders to discuss potential pipelines on October 9th. But so far Russian companies (except for Lukoil) have been notable by their absence. Russia is only the 18th-biggest investor in Serbia; the country's largest single exporter is owned by US Steel. The EU has poured lots of money into rebuilding Serbia. If Serbia kept on track, a lot more cash could come—and Russia offers little.

On October 15th Montenegro signed a “stabilisation and association agreement” with the EU, normally a step towards membership. Serbia could soon do the same. But a negative report to the EU from Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor at The Hague war-crimes tribunal, means that it must first be seen to do more to catch the fugitive Ratko Mladic. Ms Del Ponte will visit Serbia soon to check progress (the government has posted a reward for the missing general, 12 years after he was indicted). This suggests that the Russian option is, as one diplomat puts it, “loose talk”—for now. If many EU countries recognise an independent Kosovo next year, it will be their turn to call Serbia's bluff.

Kosovo's future: Fretting

Oct 18th 2007
PRISTINA-From The Economist print edition

Independence is not quite in the bag

KOSOVO should be abuzz. A general election is due on November 17th. Soon afterwards Kosovo's Albanians (Kosovars) hope to declare independence, becoming the seventh country to emerge from the wreckage of Yugoslavia. Yet gloom hangs over the province, under United Nations jurisdiction since the end of the war in 1999. Too many promises have been broken for the Kosovars, who account for 90% of Kosovo's 2m population, to buzz.

The election will change little. None of the parties has any policies beyond independence. They are based on personalities and quarrels over who did what in the war. It will be, sighs a source close to government, “only a reshuffling of the pack”. There is a wild card, in the shape of Behgjet Pacolli. This Kosovar tycoon made his fortune as a builder in Russia and the former Soviet Union and has plastered Kosovo with posters of the Kremlin and other buildings he worked on, stating how many Kosovars he employed on each.

A troika of ambassadors from Russia, America and the European Union is holding talks between the Kosovars and Serbia, due to end on December 10th. After that, as there is unlikely to be a deal, the Kosovars want to declare independence. But a declaration will be worthless unless many countries, especially in the EU, recognise it.

With holidays and time needed to form a government, little will happen until early next year. Then Kosovar leaders fear that there may be calls for yet another round of diplomacy. They are nervous of a repeat of the Balkan past. In 1878 Bosnia came under Austro-Hungarian rule, but with nominal sovereignty staying with the Ottomans. The Kosovars fear that, once the UN mission is replaced by an EU one, the big powers might press them to accept that, even if Kosovo begins acting as an independent state, Serbia should retain sovereignty at least for a few years.

Kosovo's leaders will not accept this. Ominously, one armed group has made a dramatic appearance on television. Albin Kurti, a former student leader under house arrest for leading a protest that turned violent, says that 2m people in Kosovo are, in effect, under house arrest. He argues against any further negotiations, since negotiations always aim at compromise—and Kosovo cannot compromise on independence.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Sovereignty and Limits for Kosovo

New York Times Editorial.

Eight years after NATO went to war to stop the ethnic purge in Kosovo, it’s time for the international community to recognize the province’s independence from Serbia. The United States and Europe are inching toward that decision, but Russia is blocking action by the Security Council. Although Kosovo’s Albanian-dominated government still has a way to go to fully guarantee the rights of its minority Serb population, more delays would only feed the resentments that led to so much turmoil and bloodshed throughout the 1990s.

Last February, a United Nations envoy presented a sensible plan that would grant Kosovo — which has been under the supervision of the United Nations since 1999 — a carefully limited independence, with extensive international supervision and protection for ethnic Serbs and other minorities. After Belgrade and Moscow fiercely objected, the Security Council agreed to another round of negotiations between Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs. But Kosovo’s Serbs, and their allies in Belgrade, say they’ll never recognize Kosovo’s independence, while Kosovo’s Albanians, who compose 90 percent of the population, say they’ll accept nothing less.

The major powers now face a Dec. 10 deadline for deciding Kosovo’s future. Kosovo’s Albanians have agreed to the United Nations’ plan, which gives the Serbs much of what they want, including autonomy for Serb communities and protections for Serb monuments. The Albanians say they will declare independence unilaterally if the Security Council does not act. It is in everyone’s interest, including Russia’s, to have the United Nations maintain a strong role in this process.

Moscow and Belgrade have hinted at partition of Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians. That is a dangerous, unworkable approach that would embolden Serb nationalists and fuel more resentment among Albanians in a region that needs to restrain both sets of passions.

The United States and the majority of European Union countries that also favor independence must now take a firm stand. If Russia continues to oppose the United Nations’ plan, Washington and its allies must move ahead anyway and recognize Kosovo in time for the Dec. 10 deadline. They must also make clear to Belgrade that it has a lot to gain — including eventual membership in the European Union and NATO — if it doesn’t object too loudly or too destructively. Many Serbs would clearly prefer to be a favored ally of the West than of Russia.

A sovereign Kosovo, like all new democracies, will need long-term help meeting legal, human rights, economic and other challenges, but its people deserve the chance to try. And Serbs need to come to terms with the fact that Kosovo will never again be ruled by Belgrade. It’s time to begin healing this last Balkan wound.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rice: Only independent Kosovo can stabilize Balkans

Interview by Reuters.

QUESTION: Kosovo is one of the looming crises between now and the end of the year. Is the United States considering unilaterally recognizing Kosovo as independent if no broader agreement is reached in the Security Council this year?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the United States is certainly committed to the logic of the Ahtisaari plan. And the logic of the Ahtisarri plan is that there isn't going to be a reunification of Serbia and Kosovo, and that both Kosovo and Serbia need to get on with their futures and leave behind their past.

We have committed to 120 days to see if the circumstances, the atmosphere, even some of the actual moves that the two sides could make, could make it a more amicable outcome. But in the final analysis, you know, the President was very clear when he was in Albania that there is going to be an independent Kosovo. Now, the question of how we get there, who else - I do believe the Europeans are in the same posture. How we get there, I think, is what's still to be determined. But there's going to be an independent Kosovo. We're dedicated to that. I think it's the only potential - the only solution that is potentially stabilizing for the Balkans rather than destabilizing for the Balkans.

QUESTION: Some of the diplomats involved say that the problem is that the Kosovars and the Serbs have no real incentive to negotiate seriously because they count on the Russians to veto a resolution and the Kosovars have no incentive because they can count on the United States to recognize UDI. What's your response to that?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, frankly, I was concerned about the same thing. Now, we've told the Kosovars that we don't think that a unilateral declaration of independence is a very good idea and so we need to go through this process.

I've been pleasantly surprised, as somebody who is fairly skeptical about what could be achieved, that I do think they're making some progress. Not that the Serbs and the Kosovars have - are suddenly going to come to the same understanding of what the final status will look like, but they are making, I think, some progress on some of the other issues that could lead to a more amicable and sustainable outcome at the end of this. And as I said, there's been good feeling about the cooperation between the EU, Russia and the United States.

QUESTION: Do you feel at the end of the process it will - you'll be prepared to let the European Union, as it were, take the lead in determining the final status, or do you think it's going to take American leadership to get the Europeans there?

SECRETARY RICE: Oh, I think it'll take the United States and Europe together on this one and when I talk to the Europeans, they all say, you know, we know that Europe - the Europeans say about themselves that they know that ultimately, the Balkans is, of course, much closer to Europe than to the United States and they need a stable Balkans so they're going to have to do - they're going to have to take the tough decisions and do the right thing.

We want very much to have good relations with Serbia and for Serbia to find its European home, but it's going to be difficult for Serbia to find a European home if it holds on to - you know, to old hopes. It's really time for everybody to move forward.

I've heard good things, frankly, about the meetings that have been going on, good things about the coordination and work that Russia, the EU and the United States are doing together in the troika. There are new ideas on the table, not about the actual status but about some of the tools and mechanisms that might be used to make relations between Serbia and Kosovo smoother. The Kosovars could do more, and we're pressing them to do more, to assure everyone that they really are going to live up to the other logic of the Ahtisaari plan, which is that this has to be a state that is completely devoted to minority rights, religious protections and so forth.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Kosovo’s independence is inevitable

Interview by NYT. Below is the question and answer regarding the status of Kosovo:

NYT - (Q): If you’ll allow me to continue with Kosovo, when we’re talking about Kosovo it seems very likely that Russia will stick by its decision to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution. The United States regards this issue as a test of the European Union’s determination with respect to Moscow. Is Europe ready to see Moscow dictate it its foreign policy or is it going to endorse the decision?

Sarkozy- ( A): First, Kosovo’s independence is inevitable in the long term. Second, that Russia should want to regain its full place seems to me legitimate, and even desirable. Third, France wants excellent relations with Russia, but Russia cannot expect the rights of a big power without taking on the duties. Fourth, on the question of Kosovo, Europe has to remain united. It is all together that we must in the end back independence for Kosovo. And if I’ve said it is not a question of months or weeks, it’s because I wanted to preserve that unity. And Mr. [Vladimir V.] Putin [President of Russia] must understand that no one wants to humiliate him, that everyone understands efforts he is making to restore Russia to its standing, and no one can criticize him for this. But at the same time he must understand that his interlocutors have convictions every bit as much as he does, regarding human rights, respect for minorities, the rule of law, and democracy. It is called a frank dialogue.

Q. Is that what you had with him at [the G8 summit in] Heiligendamm [Germany, in June]?

A. Exactly. Just that. I found the talks with him very interesting. He told me his side of the truth frankly. I answered with equal frankness. I believe in Russia’s role. Russia is a great power. But no great power can exempt itself from its duties.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Albania's government:No power, no glory


Aug 16th 2007 TIRANA
From The Economist print edition

A tale of corruption and power cuts

BAMIR TOPI, Albania's recently elected president, may find himself doing rather more than his job description would suggest. A 50-year-old biologist, he is the first head of the republican state never to have been a member of the Communist Party. He is also one of the country's few senior politicians not to have been seriously tainted by scandal.

The president does not have executive powers, but he has a say in appointing senior members of the judiciary and is also head of the armed forces. Mr Topi, deputy leader of the ruling Democratic Party under Sali Berisha, the present prime minister, has a reputation as a moderate. Could he give Albania's image abroad a boost and help to calm the chronic political in-fighting that came close to wrecking last month's presidential vote and precipitating an early general election?


It took four rounds of voting for Mr Topi to scrape together the three-fifths majority he needed to win. The final vote came after days of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring between Mr Berisha and Fatos Nano, his Socialist predecessor. Mr Nano's own hopes of becoming president were dashed when he failed to win the backing of his successor as party leader, Edi Rama.

The feud between Mr Berisha and Mr Nano, both prominent under Enver Hoxha, is one reason why Albania still suffers from high unemployment and low investment. Albanian migrants working in western Europe and America send home almost $1 billion a year in remittances. Most goes towards building homes and looking after jobless family members. Many Albanians are wary of setting up businesses at home, where licences are given out to political cronies, existing firms use blackmail and intimidation to discourage rivals and the judiciary is corrupt.

Mr Topi's first big task will be to name a new chief prosecutor to replace Theodhori Sollaku, who has been accused of having links with organised crime. Mr Sollaku, who was appointed by the Socialists in 2002, denies this, and his mandate has no expiry date. But Mr Topi is expected to push for a constitutional amendment to set a time limit. He will present this as one of the reforms that are needed for entry into NATO, a goal Albania hopes to achieve at next year's NATO summit in Romania. Without even a remote chance of early European Union membership, Albania is eager to join the other principal Western club soon.

Mr Berisha hopes to attract more foreign investment with his “Albania one-euro” policy of offering sites to foreign companies at minimal rents. But there are likely to be few takers so long as electricity shortages persist. In Tirana this summer, power has been switched off for at least six hours a day; in the countryside, power cuts can last as long as 20 hours. Plans for private investors to build new power plants are way behind schedule. Continuing power cuts are a big reason for a recent dip in the government's popularity and a revival in the Socialists' fortunes.

On the other hand, the economy is growing by about 6% a year. Land prices are rising, especially along the Adriatic coast, as foreigners buy up plots for future development. If the future of Kosovo is settled satisfactorily later this year, the prospects for Albania should brighten.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Liberating Kosovo

Chicago Tribute Editorial

August 13, 2007

Eight years after bombing by U.S.-led forces put an end to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the troubled province still lacks its independence -- an evolution now threatened with further delay. Kosovo, with ethnic Albanian Muslims making up 90 percent of its 2 million people, still is part of Serbia, although it has been administered by the United Nations since the end of the war there in 1999. The U.S. and its European allies want Kosovo to achieve independence. The main diplomatic obstacle: Mother Russia, with its ancestral ties to the Serbian people.

But that's not the whole story. Russia's obstructionist stance is less about deep solidarity with its Slavic sister nation than with Moscow's tussle against Washington for spheres of influence in Europe. There's also Russia's fear that freedom for Kosovo will only encourage impatient separatists in its own multiethnic realm.

As a consequence, Russia in recent weeks has forced the U.S. and the Europeans to withdraw several Kosovo resolutions they had offered to the UN Security Council. All of these proposals would have paved the way for an independent Kosovo while providing for the protection of the prospective nation's Serbian minority.

How to attack the stalemate? The West has now agreed that a troika composed of the U.S., Russia and the European Union will conduct 120 days of shuttle diplomacy, which began Friday, with Serbian officials in Belgrade and Kosovo officials in Pristina. This may be the final attempt to find an amicable solution.

Should those talks surprisingly bear fruit, the EU likely would take over the administration of Kosovo. The EU then could economically rebuild this region of 4,200 square miles that has largely depended on the generosity of ethnic Albanians living across Europe. The Serbs would be compensated for giving away 15 percent of their territory, which many of them consider the cradle of their nation, with the prospect of joining the EU and enjoying the economic boost it has brought in recent years to its new member states.

But persuading the Serbs that liberating Kosovo serves their own long-term interests is a demanding task. They do, after all, have Russia's support for insisting on their territorial integrity, which was enshrined in the Security Council resolution that put the interim UN administration in place. And the perceived strength of their position may well entice Serbian leaders in Belgrade to thwart the West in repayment for what they still regard as unjust and humiliating treatment during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

The Bush administration is ready to recognize an independent Kosovo regardless of the outcome of the new talks. This proper (and calculated) move has stepped up pressure not only on the Serbs but also on those European governments that have been reluctant to take the same step. Some, such as Spain and Cyprus, would prefer to extend the status quo indefinitely rather than do anything to keep their own domestic separatists from growing bolder. Others, such as Germany and France, want the Security Council involved, both to bolster the UN's credibility and to give the EU legal authority to be involved in Kosovo's reconstruction.

Washington's task is to convince the European governments that the Kosovars are finally entitled to assume responsibility for their own fate. That means pushing the Europeans to set aside their respective domestic fears and act as a group.

Getting Europe united and having the West speak with one voice would send a long-overdue signal to Russia that its muscular tactics won't increase its influence in European affairs.

And in practical terms, a united Europe also is crucial to securing a strong engagement of the EU in Kosovo, even if the shuttle diplomacy fails. Given that, according to the UN, 400,000 arms are still being kept in the province illegally, an EU commitment going forward is critical to prevent new eruptions of violence in what remains Europe's most explosive spot.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Letters home: School uniform is 'cool' for Kosovo girl shot 16 times and now in UK

From Manchester with love

Cool school uniform, warm Manchester days and refugee theatre form some of the early impressions of a young orphan rescued from Kosovo, recounted in letters home.

Picture:
Saranda lost 14 members of her family in the war.

Saranda Bogujevci, 22, enjoyed the most miraculous of miraculous escapes as Serbian paramilitary killers riddled her body with 16 bullets in a massacre in the garden of her family home in the village of Podujevo on the 28th March 1999. Six of her family - including her mother and brother - were killed.

Saranda left the bloodshed in Pristina behind as she settled in Manchester and recovered from her injuries. But the horror of her family's murder follows her, and years later she returns to the region to testify against the killers.

Below are extracts from letters she wrote home to her grandmother, as she gets to grips with her new surroundings in the north-west of England.

10 SEPTEMBER 1999

Dear Grandma, It's been months since I saw you but so much has happened and I want to tell you how I've ended up here, sitting in a hospital bed in Manchester, England.

We were rescued from the hospital in Kosovo and sent here. I can remember the night so clearly in my head. 14 June. All four of us cousins were in Pristina Hospital. This was where the other soldiers had sent us after the shooting of the family.

I've not been able to say what I'm thinking because my English isn't good enough. It's driving me mad

It was very dark outside - pitch, pitch black. The lights in the corridor were really dim. It was so quiet inside. I could see the nurses going up and down the corridor but there were no soldiers. Usually this corridor was filled with drunken or injured soldiers. With lots of noise, shouting, laughing, singing, even shooting sometimes, but on this night there was none of that.

In the morning, when the time came for the nurses to wake us up, nothing happened. So I got up with the girl who was sharing my room to go to the toilet. Whilst I was waiting for her, I looked out the window and I caught sight of a Nato sign on one of the tanks. Even though I was tired and weak, I ran down the corridor to tell my cousin Jehona. I just wanted to scream as loud as I could.

2 FEBRUARY 2000

Dear Grandma, The last time I wrote I was lying in a hospital bed. Well, things have got better since then. I still have physiotherapy all the time, sometimes up to five times a week but at least I get to go home in the evenings.

About three months ago I had the major operation on my arm. Please don't worry about my injuries, though, the doctors here did a great job. So good in fact that I'm back at school. It's great to be back amongst kids my own age. Plus I get to wear a school uniform which is really cool. No one back home would wear them but here we all turn up in our grey skirts, jumpers and purple ties.

It's hot here too today - it doesn't happen often but Manchester can get pretty warm

The lessons take my mind off what has happened in the last year. Even though it's only science, maths and the odd art lesson, I can lose myself in the tasks. Plus the other pupils and the teachers are really nice, which makes all the difference.

It's strange though, as the whole school system is different to how it would be in Kosovo. Instead of the teachers having their own room, my class has a room and the teachers have to come to us.

Although I'm healing well on the inside there are still things that get in my way. I can't tell people what I think. So many times I've not been able to say what I'm thinking because my English isn't good enough. It's driving me mad, I want to say to people: "This isn't me, I'm not coming across in the way I intend!"

But I can't so I feel like a different person. I hate it. I was never quiet back home and here the teachers think I'm so well behaved. If only they knew! I miss you and home so much. Hope to see you soon. Love Saranda.

20 AUGUST 2002

Dear Grandma, I was just thinking about you. I'd got my music system on and cousin Ismet's track was playing. You know, the one about the wedding. If I close my eyes, I can see myself out in the garden in Podujevo, in the bright sun. It's hot here too today. It doesn't happen often but Manchester can get pretty warm, not like home though.

Anyway, I've got some good news. Today I got my GCSE results (they're sort of like the exams you'd do at the end of primary school). I got the top mark in art!

Ever since that day, when the Serbian army came in and shot us, I wanted to see them brought to justice

I think I had a really good teacher but still, I feel a little weird, I really didn't write that much for the coursework. I wasn't even sure if I'd pass the exam. So to get an A* is, well, not what I expected.

Having said that, recently I have become so much more confident in speaking to people in English. Now I can say what I really think. I've felt invisible for the past few years and its great not to have someone else talk for me at last. I think I might take art at college, since it was my best grade. The place I've decided to go to has a great art department.

Remember how I thought I might have to be a pharmacist? Well, how things change. I can tell you, I would have been a really bad pharmacist, it's probably better for everyone's health now. Hope to see you soon. Love Saranda.

MARCH 2003

Dear Grandma, I'm feeling so odd today. We got back from the airport yesterday but it still hasn't sunk in that the trial is over. Ever since that day, when the Serbian army came in and shot us, I wanted to see them brought to justice. Seeing them sitting in the courtroom everyday, it felt so, on the one hand great because we could say what they'd done to us but also scary.

We were worried that something could happen again. It was tough getting through the process: we needed 24-hour protection. From the moment we landed in Belgrade to the moment we left again.

It's funny, when I went home this summer and tried to hook up with my old mates it was harder than I expected - most are now married, or have moved away

It was weird because I ended up testifying on mum's birthday and in the car on the way back I remember resting my head on the car window and looking at the sun, it was so bright. Anyway, just for a second, there she was, smiling face-to-face at me. I'd forgotten it was her birthday and it took my mobile phone's calendar to remind me of it. When I switched it on at the end of the day it beeped up with the message, "Mum's birthday".

We had to go and I'm glad we did but I'm pleased to be back home in Manchester. I've spent so long thinking about what happened back in 1999 and now, at last, I feel like I can move on, that it's okay to move on, that the people that did this to me, to you, to all the women and children, that they've been punished. I miss you. Love Saranda.

SEPTEMBER 2004

Dear Grandma, I've just come back from meeting a friend in town. She's like me; she has family abroad and totally gets what it's like to have two cultures in your life, one foot in Manchester and one foot elsewhere. She's so chilled out and doesn't judge me at all.

Aside from Claire, I'm making other new friends here all of the time. It's funny, when I went home this summer and tried to hook up with my old mates it was harder than I expected. Most are now married, or have moved away. I suppose we've all grown apart. We're not the people we were back in primary school.

There are other good things going on in Manchester too. I've started to do loads more activities. The local theatre, the Royal Exchange, has got a group together of refugees who act and we're devising a show for the studio theatre. I learned a lot from the cast. Most of us hadn't acted before but this made us all really close as we needed each other. The show we devised was called Face to Face: Love in the UK and is all about relationships. It's very funny. I wished you'd seen it. Love Saranda.

30 JUNE 2007

Dear Grandma, I've got time to write to you as I've finished my uni for the summer. You'll never guess where I'm going next year though... Canada. I can remember wanting to go places as a kid, especially coming to England. I never thought I'd live here and now I'm heading off for another land.

I can't wait to see you all. You know that Kosovo will always be the place of my childhood and where I was made but Manchester is what made me an adult. I wish I could talk to Mum and ask her what she thinks of me as an adult. Is this the grown up Saranda she had in mind? I'll never know. I'll write soon, love Saranda.

Fair use from BBC.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Slovenia to break Kosovo logjam with EU offer

By Christopher Condon in Budapest, Neil MacDonald in Belgrade,and George Parker in Brussels
Published: July 31 2007 03:00-Financial Times.

Slovenia will try to persuade Serbia to give Kosovo independence in exchange for a chance to join the European Union.

Officials in Ljubljana hope to use Slovenia's presidency of the EU next year to break the logjam over the United Nations-administered breakaway province, in exchange for EU candidate status for Serbia. After the failure of talks between Belgrade and separatist Kosovo Albanian leaders this year, Martti Ahtisaari, the UN mediator, urged the UN Security Council to impose independence, with EU-led supervision to protect Serbs and other minorities in the province of 2m people.

But Russia, Serbia's veto-holding ally on the Security Council, has blocked three pro-independence draft resolutions put forward by the US and EU countries.
Nevertheless Dimitrij Ru-pel, Slovenia's foreign minister, is optimistic. "I have never felt as confident as I feel now dealing with my colleagues from Serbia."
As the only ex-Yugoslav republic in the 27-nation bloc, Slovenia hopes it can broker closer ties with other former Yugoslav countries.

Eight years after the end of the last Balkan war, efforts to solidify the region's peace badly need a jump-start. The EU is struggling to overcome the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina, inter-ethnic political deadlock in Macedonia and the status of Kosovo.

Although the EU endorsed the Ahtisaari plan, many EU members have resisted pushing Serbia too hard over Kosovo, fearing a resurgence of extreme Serb nationalism and a return to economic isolation for the largest ex-Yugoslav republic.

Slovenia's chief advantage in approaching each of these is its intimate familiarity with the region. Slovenes share a similar language and culture with most former Yugoslavs, especially Croats and Serbs. Yugoslav-era political connections remain as well.
Unlike Croatia or Bosnia, Slovenia won its independence almost without bloodshed. No deep scars of war prevented it from re-establishing relatively good relations with its former Yugoslav partners.

Ljubljana is motivated by growing commercial interests across the region.Slovenian investments in the western Balkans ac-counted for nearly two-thirds of the country's out-going foreign direct investment in 2006. "Slovenia has a similar interest in a region in the way Portugal has an interest in Africa," said Janez Jansa, prime minister.

Slovenia's understanding of the region, however, guarantees very little. Its plans for Serbia and Macedonia could be overly ambitious. Even shepherding Croatia closer to EU membership may prove problematic. Despite generally good relations, Ljubljana and Zagreb have been in dispute over their borders. Croatia has accused Slovenia of obstructing Croatia's EU accession talks to gain the upper hand in a maritime dispute, which Ljubljana denies.

Plucky nation of 2m ready to take on the might of union's giants

Europe's political game of musical chairs has entered an intriguing new phase. The next time the music stops, Slovenia - an Alpine country of 2m people - will be in the hot seat, running the presidency of the EU, a bloc of almost 500m people.

For the former communist country, the first of the EU's 2004 intake of new members to assume the rotating presidency, it is a sign and a test of Slovenia's growing maturity.
Other countries have run a mile from taking on the cost and commitment of running the EU. Estonia, for example, has managed to avoid the fateful moment until 2018; Poland will not have its go until 2011.

One can see why. Slovenia has pencilled in €62m ($85m, £42m) as the cost of running the six-month presidency starting on January 1, while Janez Jansa, prime minister, reckons at least 70 per cent of his time will be devoted to European issues.
It is the diplomatic equivalent of hosting the Olympics. A brand new conference facility is taking shape at the lakeside venue of Brdo in the shadow of the Alps.

Slovenes expect to chair 3,000-4,000 meetings and are taking courses in how to conduct them, as well as crash courses in French; scores of officials are being dispatched to Brussels.
There was near unanimous parliamentary support in 2004 for Slovenia taking on the presidency, and the main parties have agreed to suspend hostilities on European issues while Mr Jansa is in the chair.
Fair use from Financial Times.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kosovo-Out with the UN, in with the EU

Jul 26th 2007-From The Economist print edition

The West seeks a way around Russia's veto in the Balkans

WHEN the Americans and their friends in the European Union last week withdrew a proposed resolution on the future of Kosovo from the UN Security Council, it was clear that Russia and Serbia had won a hard-fought diplomatic battle. But Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, said that many more fierce engagements lay ahead. This is all the more true because Kosovo has increasingly become part of an argument between the West and Russia which has little to do with its rival Serbs and Albanians.

Still technically part of Serbia, Kosovo and its 2m people have been under the jurisdiction of the UN since the end of a war there in 1999. Some 90% of the population consists of ethnic Albanians who demand nothing less than independence. Serbia's leaders say that Kosovo, a land studded with medieval Serbian churches, can have anything it wants except full independence—the only thing Kosovo's Albanian leaders say they will not compromise on.


In the past four months Western countries have circulated several draft Security Council resolutions on Kosovo's future. All aimed to give it independence, making it the seventh and last state to emerge from the wreckage of what was Yugoslavia. Russia, with its power of veto, objected every time. It said it would support such a package only if it were agreed between Serbia and Kosovo's Albanians. Last year 14 rounds of talks between them, overseen by Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, failed to achieve any result.

Now, say the diplomats, it is time for the parties to talk again, this time under the aegis of the Contact Group, the informal body that has co-ordinated policy towards the former Yugoslavia since the early 1990s. Its members are Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States. Officially, this is what Russia and Serbia want. In fact, Serbia has no idea what its strategy should be. Kosovo's Albanians have no intention of making any more compromises than they already have for Mr Ahtisaari's plan for an internationally “supervised independence”, which has now hit the buffers at the UN.

Russia may have less interest in Kosovo itself than in the chance to stir up differences between its EU neighbours. But some EU diplomats say they have no intention of being thwarted by Russia. Along with the Americans, they aim to use the coming months to build up a critical mass of European countries ready to recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo when the talks inevitably fail. But, in exchange for this, the EU wants Kosovo's government to invite a strong EU mission to replace the withering UN one in the disputed territory.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fires wreak havoc in the Balkans, Southeast Europe

By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST, July 24 (Reuters) - Twelve Romanians died and fire-fighters, soldiers and volunteers battled wildfires across southeastern Europe on Tuesday as a persistent heat wave broke temperature records across the region.

Serbia was battling 50 forest fires on what meteorologists predicted would be the hottest day of the year, with the temperature topping 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit).
In Romania, the heat wave's death toll rose to 30 and 19,000 people had been admitted to hospital in the region's second devastating hot spell this year.

Bucharest tried to cope with sporadic power blackouts under an increased load of air conditioners and fans, but health officials were able to cancel "Code Red" emergency measures declared on Monday as they forecast easing temperatures.

"We have good news ... from Thursday we will shift to 'Code Green'," Health Minister Eugen Nicolaescu told reporters.
More than 35 people died in Romania, Turkey and Greece in June when the mercury shot up to 46 Celsius.

Forests in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece have been ravaged by flames this week, blamed on record-high temperatures after the dry winter.
"I spoke with the Greeks and the Bulgarians to ask for help, but they have the same problem," said Predrag Maric, chief of Serbia's police rescue department.

"We hoped a Russian water-bomber would arrive in the morning, but they had to go help in Bulgaria where the situation is critical. And today will be the hottest day of the year."
In Macedonia temperatures were expected to hit an all-time record of 45 degrees Celsius during the day. One man died of smoke inhalation overnight in the southern town of Bitola and 200 were evacuated from a suburb.

In Bosnia, the southern towns of Citluk, the Adriatic port of Neum and the mountain town of Visegrad declared states of emergency. Towns and villages faced power cuts and water shortages due to the fires.

"The wind is our biggest enemy, it speeds up the burn enormously," said Stanko Sliskovic, Civil Defence Secretary of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation.
There were 18 fires burning in Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province, most near inhabited areas including the capital Pristina, and police, forestry officials and soldiers from the resident NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR were battling flames.

"We have ordered all fire fighters to work," said Mahir Hasani of Kosovo's Emergencies Department. "There is no day off, no holiday for anybody. We are on high alert." (Additional reporting by Kole Casule in Skopje, Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Luiza Ilie in Bucharest)
Fair use from Reuters.

Monday, July 23, 2007

BalkanUpdate hacked by a Jihadi



BalkanUpdate website is back online again. The website was hacked by an Islamic extremist ( Jihadi) because, according to the message, the website supported United States and Israel. I was really surprised to see this site come to the attention of a Jihadi as we don’t comment on issues that raise the ire of Jihadis. There is only one article: Kosovo Leader visits Israel that even mentions Israel, but that seems to have been enough to cause them to take the site down. An investigation reviled that the hacker was attracted to the site by the above link that was posted in another pro Russian/Slavic blog. I don’t know what to make out of this, but I am glad the site is back and running.

Above is the message left by the hacker. The audio piece was apparently a pro Jihad propaganda song.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The butcher of the Balkans rests in peace



……while his victims continue to be found in mass graves in the fields of Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia. Oh, the butcher I had in mind is Slobodan Milosevic. The grave is guarded by a 44 year old Serb whose only comment to the journalist from the daily Express, who visited the grave, was "I am glad I have this job". We are glad too, pal. Enjoy it!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kosovo's future: A new battlefield

Jul 12th 2007 MITROVICA AND PRISTINA
From The Economist print edition

The Russians have staved it off for now, but unilateral independence for Kosovo may still be coming

IN THE Serb-controlled northern part of Mitrovica, in Kosovo, a banner calls on the Russians for help. “In the name of God and justice,” reads another, in English, “do not make our Holy Land a present to Albanians.” Yet a few hundred metres south, across the River Ibar, Albanians stroll around in the sunshine. Kosovo feels calm and peaceful. It could, however, be the calm before the storm.


This week diplomats at the United Nations were working on the fifth draft of a Security Council resolution on the future of Kosovo. Russia has all but promised to veto any text that foresees independence for the territory. It seems that, although the war is far from over, they have won this round in the new battle of Kosovo.


Technically Kosovo is part of Serbia. But since the end of the fighting in 1999 it has been under UN jurisdiction. Some 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians (Kosovars) who want independence. In 2005 the UN invited Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, to chair talks between Serbia and the Kosovars on the province's future. Serbia says the Kosovars can have anything they want but formal independence. The Kosovars say they will compromise on anything but that.


In March, after the two sides duly failed to agree, Mr Ahtisaari sent the Security Council his own plan for “supervised independence”. This foresaw an independent Kosovo, with highly autonomous zones for the Serb minority and the replacement of the UN mission by an EU mission, with a form of international governor. Serbia rejected this, as did Russia.


The Russians assert that Kosovo's independence against Serbia's wishes would set a precedent for other separatists. Not so, say Western supporters of the plan, who argue that Kosovo is a unique case. Many Western diplomats thought that Russia would eventually make a deal, trading Kosovo's independence for something else. Their mantra has been that “there is no Plan B.” But now, says Veton Surroi, a senior Kosovar politician who is de facto foreign minister, “Plan A is dead.”


Diplomats in New York are trying to tempt the Russians with a resolution which, though not endorsing the Ahtisaari plan, would allow the EU to replace the UN mission in Kosovo. The odds are against them, because the draft calls on Serbs and Kosovars to talk again for 120 days while the EU mission takes over. Once that is done, it would be easier to recognise an independent Kosovo.


Meanwhile, Mr Surroi observes, nobody is saying “what we should talk about.” Diplomats say the talks are meant to “go the extra mile” but, as Mr Surroi asks, once you have already done a marathon, what is the point of running an extra mile? The answer is that, for now, neither America nor the EU has the stomach to face down Russia. But when the EU mission is running, a unilateral declaration of independence would be easier.


On June 28th Serbs commemorated the 618th anniversary of their defeat in the battle of Kosovo at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, declared that a new battle was being waged for Kosovo. It is a battle of “might or right”, he said, “and only right can win in Kosovo.” Yet Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's foreign minister, seems discomfited by the recent assertion of Russia's Vladimir Putin that the Balkans had always been a sphere of Russian special interest and that it was “natural that a resurgent Russia is returning there.” Russia is a good friend, says Mr Jeremic, but Serbia's strategic priority is still to join the EU.


Serbian and EU officials are at pains to insist that there is no link between Kosovo's future and Serbia's EU aspirations, but in the long run there must be. If Kosovo remains unresolved and restive, the EU will not admit Serbia as a member. Mr Jeremic claims that, in the coalition government, “we are all on the same page”. This is not widely believed. Partisans of President Boris Tadic argue (privately) that joining the EU is more important than keeping Kosovo, whereas supporters of Mr Kostunica say (publicly) that keeping Kosovo is more important than joining Europe.


Privately some Serbs and Kosovars say they could have serious talks on partition, but only, say the Kosovars, if the Serbs are prepared to trade the north of Kosovo for Albanian-inhabited areas of Serbia outside Kosovo. Diplomats hate such talk. For them it risks discussion of similar divisions in Macedonia, Bosnia and beyond.


In the next few weeks Serbs and Kosovars seem likely to be asked to talk again. They will doubtless glare at each other for a few more months, and the issues that confront the diplomats now will then return. At that point, if Russia continues to insist that Kosovo must stay part of Serbia, the Americans and the EU may be forced to do what they balk at now: unilaterally recognise Kosovo's independence.


At least, despite menacing words from some former guerrillas, Kosovars are not reaching for their Kalashnikovs. They understand, says a well-connected source in Pristina, that “any violence would be a bad investment now, because it would give ammunition to Russian diplomats who would argue that we were troublemakers.” For now, says Enver Hoxhaj, a Kosovar deputy, “we are just the first victims of the new Russian imperialism.”

Fair use from The Economist

Monday, July 02, 2007

Kosovo: Coming Home

Kosovo: Coming Home by Adrienne Davich
An American who grew up listening to stories about the Serbian province of Kosovo struggles with her discoveries.

PRISTINA, Kosovo So this is Kosovo. Down Pristina’s Bill Clinton Boulevard we go, an Albanian taxi driver handling the controls on his car stereo, and me riding stiff in the passenger seat, watching out the window as we draw closer to a mural of Bill Clinton waving hello.
Albanian folk music, with a beat-box techno pulse, plays on the tape deck, and the heater blows on high because the snow outside is falling in big, wet flakes. In front of us stand smoke- and dirt-stained tenement buildings, many painted a drab mint green or peach; tarnished satellite dishes hang off them. Another 200 meters, another white SUV marked “UN” patrols the street.
There are mini-groceries, CD stores, English language schools, and Western banks. Most conspicuous to me, though, are the craggy concrete walls stretching from one block to another: once marred by graffiti, they’re now plastered with red, white, and blue posters that say THANK YOU USA and I LOVE THE AMERICAN FLAG. All of it is deceptively straightforward propaganda, of course. Coveting much the same wall space is JO NEGOCIATA VETEVENDOSJE, Albanian for “no negotiation, self-determination,” a clarion call for the United Nations – and the rest of the international community, for that matter – to give the ethnic Albanians living there the statehood they’ve long fought and waited for.

A voice comes at me sideways: the cab driver wants to know if I like Bill Clinton.
My neck and shoulders tighten as I shove my hands between the car seat and my thighs. Forget Bill Clinton. Forget patriotism. I’m American, and this cab driver loves Americans, but I wonder: how would he react to the other side of this equation? Would he care if he knew that for the past few weeks I’d been visiting Serbian relatives in Belgrade?
“You like Bill Clinton?” he comes again.
“Do you?” I say.
Not unkindly, but with the look of disbelief, he turns toward me. “No Bill Clinton …,” he says, “no Albani Kosovo.”
Meaning no Kosovo independent of Serbia, freed from its long grind under Belgrade’s heel. In a land seeking to sever its hyphenated identities, to sort out its ethnic confusions behind red-white-and-blue munitions, this cab driver’s fare is nothing if not hyphenated – not to mention, at the moment, confused. I’m American of Serbian descent.
THE SERB VIEWPOINT
My attention shifts between the view from the car window and another remembered scene, with another set of litmus-paper questions. My friend Marko, a student at the University of Belgrade, is watching television with me in a Belgrade apartment, the flat of a family friend. Serbia’s prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, declares through the screen something or other about how we won’t lose Kosovo to Albanian terrorists. Kosovo belongs in Serbia, he says. Independence for the province is unacceptable. Marko nods his head in agreement. Then, with two fingers, he pulls on the lid of his Cleveland Indians baseball cap and raises one eyebrow at me. What do I think of Kostunica’s speech?
In the same way the Kosovar Albanian cab driver will a few days later, he has me. I know that since U.S.-led NATO forces drove the Serbian military out of Kosovo in 1999, the 90-percent Albanian majority there has enjoyed a new autonomy. I know that the province has remained nominally a part of Serbia but that “final status” talks are underway that could establish Kosovo as an independent state. UN, American, and European officials are drafting proposals and talking ad infinitum, with the aim of building democratic institutions in Kosovo and helping Kosovar Albanians toward their goal of self-governance.
And along with all of that, I know the Serb question: can you amputate a heart?
Serbs often say that Kosovo is like the Serbian Jerusalem. If you really want to know something about who Serbs are, they say, learn about Kosovo, the birthplace of the Serbian Orthodox Church, home of the most sacred monasteries and of Kosovo Polje, where Serbs fought their most famous battles, won some and lost others, though it really doesn’t matter because they’re all to Serbia’s honor. The idea of losing Kosovo disturbs Marko, as though the soil of Kosovo has been implanted in his 24-year-old soul. As for me, I’m wary of Serb nationalism and territorial claims, but at the same time wanting my family and friends in Belgrade to say “she’s come from America, but she’s one of ours.”
“Kostunica’s no good,” I tell Marko. “I’m sorry.”
In Belgrade, “We Won’t Give Up Kosovo” is spray-painted on the bathrooms at Kalemegdan Park, spray-painted in the gardens along Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra, spray-painted on upscale store fronts on Knez Mihailova, on streets along the Danube and Sava rivers, at the University of Belgrade, all over tenement buildings across the city, on fountains, museums, theaters, and bus stops, and it’s scribbled in permanent marker on elevators and stairwells. The message, in its different incarnations, is everywhere – on television and radio, in dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, and on and on. Don’t talk about an “Albani Kosovo” in Belgrade. Believe me, feelings will get hurt. Friendships could be ruined.
“What do you think of Tony Blair?” the cab driver now demands to know.
I’m scanning the streets of Pristina for any trace of history, for any sign that Serbs once lived all over Kosovo. But to expect such a trace would be naïve at best. Albanian flags – blood red with a black two-headed eagle – wave outside the radio station, the library, the theater. Street signs are Albanian. Serbs are out of sight in enclaves.
“Tony Blair is nice,” I blurt, reflexively.
THE WAR "OVER THERE"
It’s Christmas, maybe 1996, and I am 10 or 11 years old. Father sits at the foot of my bed, a beer-and-tomato-juice in one hand, the other hand motioning in the air. He’s sharing stories. He tells how the Serbian Orthodox church began in Kosovo, and then about the Ottoman Empire, first World War, Tito and socialism. I am curled up in the sheets, studying his face and the way his black eyebrows move when one emotion gives way to another, conviction to hopelessness, irritation to resignation.
American foreign policy, whether it’s championed by Republicans or Democrats – Father stands in opposition to it. He reads Noam Chomsky, likes alternative media. He wants America out of the Balkans, out of other people’s wars.
“For over a thousand years Serbs have lived in Kosovo,” he says, heavy-tongued. We’ve come to this discussion because Baba (my grandmother) and Tetka Seka (my great aunt) were in the kitchen talking about the war “over there” – about violence in Kosovo, and conflict rampaging through Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia – and I, the child, overheard it. We have cousins “over there,” both in Serbia and in Serb villages in Croatia. Father speaks, and I strain to understand his accounting of things.
“The problem in Kosovo,” he says, half-smiling, “is that the Serbs are using birth control.” Even to me, this is funny. Birth control, I think, is supposed to be a good thing, not a problem. “The Albanians – goddamn,” tomato juice jumps in his glass, “they’ll have four, five, six, 10 kids …” We laugh. And then I think to myself about these Albanians, “What do they look like, any way, these people? They must be some kind of mountain people, tribal types, who fight and have sex with alarming regularity.”
In the newspapers, on the televisions, Serbs are charged with ethnic cleansing, with “crimes against humanity.” Repeat it until you know it by heart, until the images will never leave you: Bosnian Serbs bombard villages and cities throughout Bosnia, they massacre civilians at Srebrenica – thousands are dead – Muslim women and children, too, bloodied, and deposited in mass graves. The imagery, rising out of the papers and into Western minds, is powerful: journalists say Europe hasn’t seen such barbarism since World War II, when Nazis ran concentration camps and organized mass killings of Jews.
In Kosovo, a tiny Serb minority governs 2 million ethnic Albanians ruthlessly and inhumanely. Western governments say that under the leadership of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo has become an apartheid province, where public institutions are “Serb-only” and Albanians are routinely beaten into submission. A slew of commentators are on TV, as well, remarking upon “Serb nationalism,” the root of these atrocities, the Milosevic regime, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
In our house, in this time, simplicity seeks asylum in complexity, patriotism in caveat: the situation is complicated. As far as I am concerned, Milosevic can’t be that bad. I mean, come on, he’s a Serb. And when “Slobo” Milosevic speaks, his pronouncements don’t sound so vindictive, so unreasonable, so cruel. Not screaming or scowling, he preaches Serbian pride, hardly a new thing for him.
On 28 June 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje (the famous battle in which the Turks defeated the Serbs), Milosevic stood on the Kosovo Polje battlefield and cheerfully declared before thousands of witnesses and television cameras that “through the play of history and life, it seems as if Serbia has, precisely in this year, in 1989, regained its state and its dignity and thus has celebrated an event of the distant past which has a great historical and symbolic significance for its future.”
No one could have foreseen Tuesday morning, 3 July 2001, in The Hague, Netherlands: Accused of crimes against humanity in Kosovo, violations of the Geneva Conventions in Croatia and Bosnia, and genocide, namely at Srebrenica, Milosevic sits in a court that will never, to his mind, accord due process. He swears, “This trial’s aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of NATO committed in Yugoslavia.”
INDOMITABLE SERBS
Kosovo’s Grand Hotel Pristina isn’t grand, but it’s the grandest hotel in Pristina and tonight I’ve taken a room here, Room 413. It’s later, now, and I am lying in bed staring at a postcard – a cheap souvenir I picked up in Mitrovica, Kosovo’s largest Serb enclave.
The card is inspired by Asterix and Obelix, the cartoon duo from a fictional village celebrated as the only part of ancient Gaul that repulsed Roman occupation, staved off Julius Caesar and his legions. The fable my postcard tells is of more recent vintage. It shows Asterix and Obelix superimposed on a map of Europe; a gold dagger, decorated with an eagle, the American flag, and the word NATO, stabs and cracks Serbia open like a machete-riven coconut. The text avows, in English:
“The year is 1999 A.C. Europe is entirely occupied by the Americans. Well, not entirely … One small country of indomitable Serbs still holds out against the invaders …
“At the end of the 20th century the American troops were controlling most of the Europe, and they finaly got close to Rusia, the last step on their road to imposing New Antichrist Terrorist Organisation.
“Although the people of Old Continent were against this godless deed, most of European statesmen became greedy for the American Dollar, thus ready to sell out their culture and morals that had been built for many centuries.
“This is a story about Yugoslavia, and the Serbs, a small but proud warrior people, willing to defend the honour of Europe. Although previously known as discordant and hot-tempered, their longing for freedom united them against much more powerful enemy. Their most fierce weapon were truth and concord …”
In bed, in the Grand Hotel, I want to do a little editing to bring the narrative up to date. The year is 2007. In this one small country of indomitable Serbs more than 25 percent of the working population is unemployed. In Kosovo, the jobless rate tops 40 percent.
At the end of the 20th century Serbia has the largest population of internally displaced people in Europe. Many live in camps, they’re not integrated with the rest of the population, they have no citizenship, and their children aren’t educated.
Although the people of Old Continent were against this, the government is dysfunctional, impaired by corruption. I think of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal politician who played a prominent role in sending Milosevic to The Hague. In 2001, he became Serbia’s prime minister, and in 2003, he was shot in the chest (by another Serb) while in the stairway of Belgrade’s main government building.
This is a story about Yugoslavia, and the Serbs, a people who’ve lived under economic sanctions and travel restrictions for most of the past two decades. Their most fierce weapon was ….
If only Serbs had a better reputation, Marko is saying, one night in Belgrade. If only they hadn’t been the “bad guys” in the war or suffered sanctions – “then I’d study abroad in the Czech Republic,” he insists. How stupid he was, he says, to have chosen the Czech language as his major at the University of Belgrade. How do you master the Czech language when you can’t afford to leave Serbia?
“I don’t know,” I say, “I guess you have to be resourceful. Not that you aren’t.”
THE AURA OF IDEAS
A dream I have begins with an incident that really happened: The bishop and head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo is with me on JAT Airways Flight 211 from London to Belgrade.
Father Artemije, in his starched, immaculately clean white robes, is seven or eight rows ahead. His white hair is partially covered beneath a white head wrap, and he’s hunched over, small and frail, his bones shrunken with old age. At his side is an exceptionally tall, lean monk named Simeon, whose robes and head wrap are jet black. Simeon is in his forties, maybe, with a blackish gray beard seven or eight inches long.
I should introduce myself, I think. I could visit them in Pec. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I can say hello and that a few weeks from now I’m going to be in their part of Serbia.
So I’m prepared. When our plane reaches the gate in Belgrade, Simeon is the first in his row to stand up. Father Artemije is weak, or so his sagging posture suggests, so Simeon is one step behind him, almost holding him up as they go down the aisle and on out of the plane. I know this is daft, but through the terminal – through customs, and down escalators to the baggage carousels – I’m two meters away from them planning what I’ll say.
“How was your trip?” No, no, that won’t work. I don’t even know where they were.
“So how was your flight?” No, that’s stupider still.
“Hello, Father Artemije …” Throat parched, I start, though I will never actually make it to his monastery in Pec. This is where memory morphs into dream: I’ve returned to America and told Baba and Tetka Seka that I met Father Artemije and his faithful companion Simeon.
Oh how wonderful they think that is! Tetka Seka cooks a huge Serbian dinner at her house to celebrate. Baba prepares cabbage rolls, my favorite. Father is there with wine and champagne. And Tetka Seka is talking about how great it would be if I could soon return to Serbia and find “a nice Serbian husband.” She has been saying this for years. “How about a nice Serbian husband, Adrienne?” And now she says that if I’m resourceful enough to meet Father Artemije in the baggage claim, then certainly I can find a nice Serbian man to marry. There are plenty of good men in the Old Country.
At the idea of this, Baba is laughing. Father is laughing. I’m laughing, kind of. We’re sitting at the kitchen table devouring cabbage rolls with sausage and bread, but Tetka Seka is standing, in her apron still, arms up in astonishment. “What?” she demands, a bit edgy. “Why are you all laughing?
Father answers for all of us, like he does: “Tetka Seka, sit down, relax, eat.”

With the taste of cabbage and champagne mixing in my mouth, I try to remember what Kosovo looks like in the remote space of my childhood dreams. I see rolling green hills dotted with stone monasteries of the gothic, Serbo-Byzantine variety. Erected in the Middle Ages, they’ve magnificent domes, lots of gold paint, and walls inside overlaid by paintings.
In the same dream is Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, where the Turks defeated the Serbs in 1389, where the Serbs defeated the Turks in 1912, and where, in 1989, Milosevic called for Serbian unity, an ingredient he believed had been lacking in 1389 and was to blame for more than 500 years of Turkish domination.
RHETORIC AND REALITY
Through the expanse of snow, along a two-lane asphalt road, I travel past crumbling houses, burned during the war, and still-standing, tile-roofed cottages. This is the road from Pristina to the Serb enclave Plementina, barren and neglected.
Beyond the gray and white hills surrounding Plementina, charred trees with dried, bare branches protrude like stalks left in the ground after a crop is cut. The sun is full and bright, unlike any other morning I’ve spent in Kosovo. In the distance, an antiquated coal-burning power plant – one of the largest in Kosovo, a 70-meter-high cylindrical tower emitting around 2.5 tons of dust per hour – belches red and yellow smoke. The further we drive, and the closer we come to the center of Plementina, the more the houses appear crowded together, the more the road is buried in mud, and the more the Serb and Gypsy children can be seen, walking through the streets to God knows where.
I stay in this rusty blue van with the women, a half dozen of them Serb, a half dozen Albanian, from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). They’re all chatting in Serbian, the language everyone knows and has spoken, off and on, since childhood. Plementina’s only market looms in front of us. And, too, a brick house with cast-iron bars over its front windows stands nearby, two doors down from a schoolhouse. Through the barred windows, I see two middle-aged women sitting together and talking. On the wall behind them hangs a mammoth Serbian flag, as strident, as awkward as the American flags I saw newly unfurled in California living rooms after 9/11.
A blue and gold sign on the roadside, in English, identifies a reconstruction project paid for by the European Union. That’s something, I’ll tell people back in Belgrade, better than no signs of reconstruction at all. Though the Serbs and Roma live here in isolation – impoverished, and beneath the copper-colored clouds blown over by wind from the power plant – the international community is at least suggesting that improvements are imminent. What else can I say?
We head to a two-room schoolhouse. Once inside, we’re overwhelmed by the smells of cabbage, sausage, and burning wood from the stove. Here is Serbian Kosovo, I think, and slouch down in a metal chair. A space heater flickers in one corner, and three narrow windows throw bands of light into the room. Twelve or so Serb women – women who live here in Plementina – listen as the UNIFEM ladies, who are dressed in suit jackets and finely pressed slacks and skirts, explain that they and other NGOs regularly visit Serbian enclaves, like this one, to discuss Kosovo’s future.
International officials like to gather Serb women, not men, because too many men have explosive tempers, fractious in their longing for a Kosovo governed by Serbia. I suppose that all the Serbian wives can go home and tell their husbands what we talk about. “Kosovo will be a place for all ethnicities.” That’s the message UNIFEM women spill out. It’s oozing with noble interests, and genuine; these women believe what they say. “This will not be a state of Albanians or a state of Serbs or a state of any other single ethnic community.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt wooed America in the 1930s with a “New Deal.” Comrade Stalin gazed proudly at Mother Russia while his followers cried, “Glory to the great Stalin, the architect of Communism.” The Communist Party of China emerged in the 1960s proclaiming: "Smash the old world, establish a new world." Bill Clinton promised in his 1996 presidential campaign that he was “building a bridge to the 21st century.” This is the rhetoric of forward-thinking. It rejects stasis and despair.
In Serbia, though, hopes for the future are usually eclipsed by a focus on the past – by the Serbs’ exaggerated ideas about what Serbia used to be, or disappointment over old, broken political promises, so stasis and despair are not rejected at all.

Two Serb women – close to my age, in their mid-twenties, or slightly older – sit frozen in place, their eyes and lips still, as if anesthetized. Sometimes they lean forward, holding the side of their face in one hand, and then you just know that they’ve heard all this – “Kosovo will be a place for all ethnicities” – many times before, so many times that this moment has taken on that painful kind of tension between their desire for it all to be true and their certainty that it’s all just talk.
The UN’s representative in Kosovo recommends granting de facto nationhood to the Kosovar Albanians; built into the proposal will be protections for the Serbs living in enclaves. For many Albanians, though, this won’t be enough, and they’ll take to the streets rallying for a fully independent Kosovo governed by and for Albanians.
Serbian politicians, by contrast, have denounced the UN proposal and reaffirm Serbian claims to Kosovo’s territory. The ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party – the most steadfast defender of a “Serbian Kosovo” – is the largest party in the Serbian parliament, even though its leading luminary, Vojislav Seselj, remains locked up at The Hague on charges of war crimes committed under Milosevic. Like all Serb nationalists, Seselj points to Kosovo Polje as the origin and symbol of Serbia’s national identity, and in so doing, I find him no different than Milosevic, who proclaimed in his 1989 speech at Kosovo Polje:
“Six centuries ago, Serbia heroically defended itself in the field of Kosovo, but it also defended Europe. Serbia was at that time the bastion that defended European culture, religion, and European society in general. … In this spirit we now endeavor to build a society, rich and democratic, and thus contribute to the prosperity of this beautiful country, but also to contribute to the efforts of all the progressive people of our age that they make for a better and happier world. Let the memory of Kosovo heroism live forever!”
The smell of pan-fried sausage and its residual oil carries over from the schoolhouse kitchen. Most of the Serb women smoke cigarettes in the hallway, and talk. The UNIFEM ladies, too, are smoking and talking, their conversations with the Serb women all about the need for basic things: jobs, the ability to leave the enclave safely, and so forth.
One woman’s face, like a melting candle, carries that excruciating look of exhausted grief. She must be over 70, which is to say wrinkled and too old for this. A black headscarf, tied beneath her round chin, covers her gray hair, a black blazer hangs over her wide shoulders, and then there are her black pants and shoes, well-worn but clean. She moves into the kitchen, and in this moment, I suspect that the United Nations and NGOs can talk about multiethnic societies and draft all kinds of proposals, but in the end hopeful declarations about integration and cooperation may be brutally unsatisfying because most Serbs (and certainly most Kosovar Albanians) don’t believe that peaceful coexistence is possible.
The old woman comes out of the kitchen, her arms weighted down by bowls of cabbage salad, sausage, and fresh white bread. She lays it all out, dish by dish, on vinyl-clothed tables and invites us to eat.
OBSTRUCTED VIEWS
Back in Belgrade. We are cramped against the windows in the middle section. We breathe in this humid, fungal smell that builds up in the bus when it rains. The Belgrade air is dank with fog and smog. Marko has one hand on a rail, to keep balance, and the other hand in the pocket of his Adidas warm-up jacket. His Cleveland Indians baseball cap throws a shadow on his forehead, and taken with the Nike shoes he’s wearing – shoes I brought him from the United States – he looks more American than I do.
“Japan gave us this bus after the NATO bombings,” he says, wagging his head. That’s his way of saying look around. “What do you think?”
“It’s nice,” I say.
The bus looks too modern and white to be one of Belgrade’s own. And that it looks foreign grows more apparent as we move deep into Banovo Brdo, a Belgrade neighborhood where hulking, concrete apartment buildings set the mood.
The sun is low and unseen behind the dim cloud cover. The air matches the ashy façades on the gray towers. And this is where we get off the bus. There’s an empty lot, an abandoned Roma camp, and then Marko’s building. We walk past the shattered beer bottles, translucent brown glass, and scraps of cardboard that the Gypsies supposedly left behind. How did things get this way? A light rain is starting. Paper garbage grows soggy and sticks fast to the ground. Then I see it: a message bubbling out of the junk heap. On a concrete slab, “We Won’t Give Up Kosovo” is spray-painted in red.
“There’s a view from me and my brother’s room,” Marko says. “You can see this lake that we go to in the summers.”
Oh good, a lake, I think. It will be nice to see something like that.
But what we see – once we rise up the elevator, push through the front door of his family’s flat, and stand before the window in his ninth-floor bedroom – is fog and smog so thick that it eclipses the lake. Even the view to the ground is obscured by the haze, so my eyes fix on the balconies of neighboring flats, to satellite dishes and clotheslines overlaid by sheets and towels. The still air, when it drifts through the window, smells like cabbage and gasoline.
I ask Marko what he thinks of all the graffiti in this neighborhood. “We Won’t Give Up Kosovo,” I remind him. “Do you agree with that?”
This isn’t a question to think over, and he doesn’t. He says, “Have you ever noticed how Serbs have been the victims throughout history?”
“I don’t know,” my voice creaks, “Of whom are Serbs the victims?”
Because when I think of Serbian “victimhood,” the story that most comes to mind involves Slobodan Milosevic’s predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, who became the president of Serbia in 1986. Perhaps more than anyone else, Stambolic helped Milosevic become a political superstar. He threw his support behind Milosevic’s campaign to be the new leader of Serbia’s Communist Party.
When violence erupted between Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians in the spring of 1987, Stambolic sent Milosevic to Kosovo to negotiate with Albanian politicians. But Milosevic used the trip to Kosovo, instead, to make an impromptu, vehement speech, before a full auditorium and a television crew, about the sacred rights of Serbs in the province.
Soon after that, he blasted Stambolic in the Serbian parliament for ignoring Kosovo’s Serb population, a move that gained him so much popularity that in 1989 he replaced Stambolic as the president of Serbia. To speak of betrayal, this would be enough, but the story goes on. In 2000, as Stambolic was making a political comeback, his body was found in a ditch. Eight Serbian secret police officers were later convicted of murdering him.
“Well, I’m just saying,” Marko says matter-of-factly, in answer to this question of national victimhood, “I can’t even travel to Hungary without a visa. I’m not a criminal.”
He nods his head back, waiting for me to saying something.
Reluctantly, I open up: “You’re right.” Rarely does anyone talk about the war’s impact on young Serbian men, their lack of economic prospects, first and foremost, and besides that, their inability to move. It’s easy to denounce “nationalism” in The Hague, or at a meeting of the United Nations, but no doubt it’s more difficult if you’re desperate, when you’ve no general idea how to make a life for yourself and your family, how to move forward in a dysfunctional state you’ve no chance of leaving.
THE END OF THE BATTLEFIELD
I remember my last morning in Pristina: I depart the Grand Hotel by taxi and tell the driver, “Take me to Kosovo Polje.” I want to see the storied Field of the Blackbirds where the Serb armies fell to the Turks and in so doing established, as far back as the 14th century, the mother church and shrine of Serbian pride in Serb defeat. The road to Kosovo Polje, Rebecca West wrote in admiration, “took us towards grey hills patterned with shadows blue as English bluebells by a valley that had the worn look, the ageing air that comes on the southern landscape as soon as the fruit blossom has passed.”
From the cab, I see the same gray hills as West did, but they’re snow-covered and patterned with burned-out brick houses. The blackened brick structures are now where snow stacks up and blackbirds nest. It almost sounds sentimental – the rolling hills, the snow, the blackbirds. Until your eyes fix on the monuments: shrines to dead Kosovo Liberation Army heroes adorned with photographs and wreathes, not far from old Serbian Orthodox monasteries and gravesites enclosed by barbed wire.
“Where do I take you in Fushe Kosove?” The cab driver’s gristly voice grates my ears. He calls the place by its Albanian name and then I feel so stupid for having not said “Take me to Fushe Kosove” when I got in the car that I can’t bring myself to admit what it is I wish to see: the Serbian monument, three stories high, yellow stone bricks, erected to commemorate the 1389 battle.
“I really don’t know where I want to go,” I say. “Maybe you can drop me at a restaurant?”
Kosovo Polje is just a suburb of Pristina. The snow, melted almost entirely, has left the dirt roadside and the road itself soaked in puddles of brown muddy water. As in downtown Pristina, concrete apartment buildings (many of the same old drab colors, peach and green) stand along the street. The cafes, groceries, shops – every sign and advertisement, down to the last trifling detail – bear Albanian words in Latin script. Somewhere around here, presumably, the monument’s in some wide-open field, but I’ve no idea where the buildings end and this meadow is supposed to begin.
“Who are you? Where do you visit from?” It’s the driver. His cab reeks – a sickening sweet clove smell as though incense from India were burning. Plastic beads dangle from the rear-view mirror, as a rosary might, but they’ve no religious significance that I can discern.
“I’m a graduate student from the States.”
Judging by his silence, the answer is satisfactory. A moment slips, and then his words come out again, wooden and terse: “This is Fushe Kosove.”
We’ve merely arrived at the end of this sad street overrun by concrete tenements, decaying buildings, and garbage heaps. I don’t know what to tell the driver, nor can I parse the words, or summon the resolve, to ask where the monument is. He prods me with questions to draw out what exactly it is I had hoped to see here, but I simply say that I’ve made a big mistake. “Take me back to the Grand Hotel,” I submit.
Because Serbian identity can no longer be bound to this territory – and perhaps the greatest tragedy is that it ever was. A lot of people are suffering while clinging to the idea of a “Serbian Kosovo,” and the reality is that a Kosovar Albanian nation is forming with all the international support it needs. As for me, I’ve come to see a battlefield that I won’t actually find; like a naïve tourist, I’ve looked for some Serbian history at Kosovo Polje, but I’ve simply found a Kosovar-Albanian community and UN vehicles on the streets.
So we turn around and head back. The driver shrugs. That’s that. The clouds are all nasty, ash-colored, runny. But I’ve never seen so many blackbirds. Thousands of them circle overhead, their pitch-dark figures striking across the stagnant sky so vigorously and overwhelmingly that they change the mood of everything, even on the ground. Beneath their gyrations, the hills look grayer, and the city, without fresh snow, without a warm breeze or ray of unblocked sunlight, appears less promising, more vulnerable still.
“They nest in the garbage,” the driver tells me, observing my fascination with the reeling birds.
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