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

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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.