by Stephen Schwartz
PRISHTINA, Kosova — This capital may be the only city in the world with streets named for Robert Dole, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, and Edward Lear. The rationale for the first two is simple--Dole was a champion of the Kosovar Albanians long before any other American politician paid attention to them, and Clinton remains a hero to Albanians for his 1999 intervention against Serbian massacres in the territory, then a restive Albanian-majority province of Serbia. Mother Teresa was of Albanian origin, although born in Macedonia. As for Lear, author of "The Owl and the Pussycat" and other works of nonsense verse, Albanians remember him as an artist who created beautiful paintings and sketches of their towns and countryside.
Mother Teresa Avenue is Prishtina's main street, and on Monday, December 10, it was filled for two hours with thousands of loud but orderly marchers demanding immediate independence for Kosova. That date was the deadline for a "Kosovo solution," promised but not delivered by the United States, the European Union, and Russia.
The demonstration was called by students aligned with the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), a political structure emerging from the former Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), which won a plurality of the vote (35 percent) in elections to the largely powerless parliament on November 17. Led by Hashim Thaci, the PDK is poised to regain power, such as it is in a territory ruled by the United Nations.
It is hard to know what political action really means here. Later that same Monday, the "Self-Determination movement"--denied legal status by the U.N. but not actually suppressed--screened a short documentary at a small cinema in the center of town. It showed footage of pro-independence demonstrations called by the group last winter, on February 10. The film showed U.N. police from ex-Communist Romania shooting tear gas, then rubber-covered metal projectiles, at the protesters. Two young men, Arben Xheladini and Mon Balaj, were killed, and marchers were filmed taking one of them, covered with blood, to a hospital.
Not surprisingly, the recent demonstration featured no U.N. flags. Kosovar Albanians have run out of patience with the U.N. and the European Union, both of which appear as playthings for Vladimir Putin, backer of Serbia in its continuing effort to hold onto Kosova. In the Balkans, we may be seeing early indications of a future in which the challenge of radical Islam will have been a mere episode, while the ancient ambitions of Russian power are revived and a new cold war begins, without the ideology of communism, but with plenty of oil and gas money fueling Muscovite imperial dreams.
What the demonstrators did carry were the Stars and Stripes, along with Albanian flags, and placards calling on the United States to help Kosova gain its freedom. Kosovar Albanians are devoted to America, though they are also confused by mixed messages from Washington.
In early December, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice affirmed that diplomacy on Kosova had failed. "We have to move on to the next step. It is not going to help to put off decisions that need to be taken," Rice said--that "next step" being independence.
Yet Frank Wisner Jr., head of the U.S. Diplomatic Office in Pristina, seemed to defy his boss. On December 10 he was quoted in the Serbian and Albanian media declaring that the "Ahtisaari report," named for a Finnish U.N. diplomat, remains the guideline for U.S. policy. The Ahtisaari scheme would give Kosova only "supervised independence" under continued U.N. domination. Secretary Rice should be wary of Wisner's apparent attempt to harmonize American policy with the intrigues of Europeans frightened by Russia, which demands that any further developments take place in the U.N. Security Council, where Putin has promised to veto Kosova independence.
In the aftermath of Rice's comments, I interviewed Albin Kurti, the youthful leader of the Self-Determination movement, at length. Kurti, a former student leader imprisoned by the Serbs, stated that he does not distrust the United States or our intentions in the Balkans, but Kosovars should take Israel as their model.
"People say Israel is strong because it has the United States as a friend, but in reality the United States supports Israel because Israel declared its independence and maintains its own strength. Strong allies do not compensate for a country's own weakness," Kurti said. "Let us first be strong in ourselves, like the Israelis, and then we will be certain of our relations with the United States and other states." Kurti and others note bitterly that Kosovar Albanian politicians want the United States to declare independence for them.
Kurti's sympathy for Israel contrasts dramatically with claims made by Serb apologists that Albanians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, want to turn Kosova into an al Qaeda rogue state. Indeed, not long before my meeting with Kurti, I spoke with one of the leading Kosovar Islamic scholars, Xhabir Hamiti, who was preparing to go to Israel for an event promoting interreligious and interethnic dialogue, and who was greatly excited by the opportunity to see the Jewish state for himself. Hamiti warned that Saudi-financed Wahhabis are persistent in their attempts to infiltrate Kosova, although they have so far encountered little success. The Islamic scholar also criticized Iranian attempts in the same direction.
Kurti, for his part, is nonreligious, but points out a previously ignored aspect of the Saudi problem in the Balkans: The Saudis come to small villages and promise to build mosques (many of which were destroyed by the Serbs) and schools. The new mosques appear, along with Saudi imams, but the schools have yet to be constructed. And Kosova needs schools more than anything else. In Pristina one sees a spectacle never encountered in Sarajevo: school-age boys, during school hours, selling cigarettes and chewing gum on the streets. The U.N. bears great responsibility for this, since it neglects spending for education in Kosova.
Albin Kurti was jailed again for his leadership of the February 10 Self-Determination protest and faces trial before a foreign judge. He is now under house arrest, allowed to leave his home for several hours each day. When I suggested that, like Hamiti, he should go to Israel and see the country for himself, Kurti reminded me that he remains restricted in his movements and has no passport. But he has used his time wisely and has become a fountain of disturbing facts and figures about the Kosova situation.
According to Kurti--and it is a situation I have long observed--U.N. and other foreign officials live well as administrators of the impoverished Kosovars, which is one of their main incentives to delay the country's independence. "They want to continue foreign rule in a lighter form," he said. All the resources for Kosova's economic and social rehabilitation are held abroad, since Kosova has no banks of its own. A U.N.-appointed official, Vlora Obertinca, confirmed in October that a privatization fund of 379 million euros (about $550 million) is deposited at low interest in banks outside Kosova. A pension fund of 241 million euros ($350 million) to which all Kosova residents are obliged to contribute is administered in the same way, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, but use of it for investment is frozen. As Kurti notes, Kosova pays tens of millions of euros a year to a company based in the tax haven of Monaco for its cell phone service, while shelling out a similar sum to Serbia for its landline telephone system. Kosova also has a huge trade deficit, with a third still going to Serbia for imports of food and other products.
The local banks in which Kosovars deposit their meager incomes are German or Austrian. Because of the lack of economic infrastructure, the large and prosperous Albanian diaspora in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States has stopped investing in Kosova, according to Kurti.
Kosova produces only two things, he said: money paid to or handled by foreigners, and an excess of local politicians. Innumerable billboards, which in a normal country would advertise consumer products, show the faces of political figures. He noted that the smallest villages, without water or power or paved roads, all have billboards produced by the U.N. calling on the inhabitants to be "tolerant." In this situation, however, tolerance means acceptance of poverty and dependence rather than acceptance of non-Albanian neighbors, Kurti said.
Kurti commented with bitter humor, "Serbia should be under foreign administration, rather than Kosova or Bosnia-Hercegovina, with the United States following the same practices it applied in Germany and Japan after World War II. . . . If we accept that at least 250,000 people were killed in the Yugoslav wars, then there are tens of thousands of murderers walking free in Serbia. Instead, we have a situation as if France or the Netherlands, rather than Germany, had been occupied after 1945."
Kurti says the U.N. acts as if Kosova did not exist until the new foreign rulers arrived in 1999. "We were discovered then," he says, "like the inhabitants of the New World when the Spanish suddenly arrived." The U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK, a word bizarrely reminiscent of the Albanian word for "enemy") has produced no budget for 2008. Its management principle--the same one that prevailed under Tito's communism--is improvisation. But under communism, at least there was a semblance of planning, while in the U.N.-ruled Balkans policies are made up on the spot, day by day.
Throughout the Balkans, fear of Serbia and Russia is acute. People on the street in Pristina and Sarajevo view Putin as their main enemy. Serbia itself is seen as a spoiler, attempting to use its Russian backing to impose itself as a stand-in for Europe as mediator between the United States and Russia. Serbian politicians threaten war if Kosova declares independence. Urged on by Putin, they also assert that if Kosova becomes free, the so-called "Serb Republic" occupying half of Bosnia-Hercegovina must be granted independence too.
The Albanian poet Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940) wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century,
Fishta's verses (adapted here from a translation by Robert Elsie) were written a century ago; but for Albanians, Bosnians, and others in the Balkans threatened by the new flexing of Russian muscles, little has changed.