Recognition Without Power
DUMNICA, Kosova — A month has passed since Kosova declared its independence on February 17. Cynics had predicted the meltdown of Kosovar Albanian society, accompanied by atrocities against Serbs and other minorities, but this has not taken place. Ordinary Kosovar Albanians, however--farmers and urban workers and tradesmen--have gotten over their immediate exultation and returned to a hard-headed wariness about Europe and its promises to help defend, democratize, and develop the new republic.
The meltdown, or something close to it, has come instead in Serbia proper, where on March 13 President Boris Tadic dissolved parliament and called for new elections on May 11. Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, the nationalist sold to the West in 2000 as a clean alternative to the late Slobodan Milosevic, precipitated the collapse of the Serbian administration. Put simply, the Tadic faction wants to continue to press for Serbia's entry into the European Union, even if it means giving up its historic claim to Kosova.
By contrast, Kostunica and his supporters are ready to turn their backs on Europe in rage over Kosovar independence, and put all their hopes on support from Russia. In the coming Serbian elections, the "liberal" Kostunica may form a bloc with the Serbian Radical party, the most violent nationalist entity west of the Russian fever swamp.
Kosova has been granted a status best described as "recognition without sovereignty." The list of countries establishing relations with the new nation (the roster can be found at kosovathanksyou.com) grows longer almost daily. But notwithstanding wild claims by Serbia and its supporters that Kosova would become an Islamic republic, the Arab states and Iran are notably absent from the inventory. The only Muslim countries that had recognized Kosova by March 20 were Albania, Afghanistan, Turkey, Senegal, and Malaysia. Informed opinion in Arab circles holds that recognizing Kosova would be viewed by Islamists as support for American policies rather than solidarity with a Muslim-majority country. Bangladesh, the Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia have indicated that they will probably recognize the government in Pristina, but they seem to be in no hurry.
Still, diplomatic recognition of Kosova, while viscerally satisfying for Kosovar Albanians and their friends, means little without the normal institutions of a free republic: clearly defined borders, a new constitution, an army, police, and an independent judiciary. Such powers are to remain in the hands of Europe for nine months or longer, under the Ahtisaari Plan, yet another of those tatty "road maps" promised to people at risk around the world.
NATO and especially the United States have given fairly clear assurances that a Serbian attack on Kosova, or attempt to annex the northern corner of the country, will be met with military force. U.S. Marines are among the contingents from the Kosovo Force (KFOR) that have been deployed to the divided city of Mitrovica, where Serbians continue to patrol, as they have since 1999, at the northern end of the bridge over the river Ibar, which runs through the town.
On March 14, having already seized control of railroad and customs facilities north of Mitrovica, a mob of Serbs occupied the U.N. court there, tearing down the blue banner of the international organization and replacing it with an extremist banner. U.N. police declined to confront the mob; a Ukrainian member of the U.N. police even placed a Serbian flag on a U.N. vehicle, for which the officer was suspended. After more dithering, international police took the building back from the crowd, but on March 17 the Serbs, allegedly coordinated from Belgrade, struck again, heaving grenades and gasoline bombs and shooting at the "internationals," killing a Ukrainian officer and wounding many. The U.N. police withdrew and were replaced by KFOR troops. But Serb soldiers and irregulars continuously poke and prod at Kosova's northern frontiers.
Whether Belgrade will actually throw itself into a full-scale provocation against Kosova statehood is debatable. Kosovar Albanians are more concerned that the European Union will simply divide the country and hand the north over to Serbia. Strikingly, Kosovars have a clear-sighted view of global politics: Vladimir Putin's Russia is the big threat, and Serbia is a pawn in Russia's bid to turn back the expansion of NATO and assert Russian influence over the whole of Europe.
But many Kosovars also understand that their country stands between two fires--revived Slavic imperialism and the threat of Islamist aggression. Kosovars themselves are rarely demonstrative about their Muslim faith--I saw only six young women in head coverings during a week in the country (though hijab is more common among rural grandmothers), and Islamic literature is difficult to find. But the situation is dire in neighboring Macedonia.
There, the regime has given free rein to Arab governments and foundations to build new mosques that spread jihadist doctrines. Wahhabi aggression against the long-established Sufi presence in the western Macedonian city of Tetovo has reached a real crisis point. Only four months ago, just two buildings at the Harabati Sufi center in Tetovo were occupied by Saudi-supported Wahhabis with their scruffy beards and automatic weapons. Now the Wahhabis, mobilizing what appear to be street vagabonds recruited and paid to fill up the Harabati's spacious Ottoman complex, have taken over most of it. They scream insults and threats at the Sufis and fire their weapons into the air at night.
The Macedonian government appears eager to sow discord in the large Albanian community within its borders. Its benevolent policy toward Wahhabism parallels a similar one in south Serbia. Physical clashes between Wahhabi agitators and indigenous Muslims have become a common feature of Balkan life everywhere except in Kosova. In the south Serbian town of Tutin, for instance, the beginning of March saw fighting between the moderate, traditional Muslims led by local mufti Muamer Zukorlic, and a Wahhabi group calling itself "the Islamic Community of Serbia" and run by an unknown named Adem Zilkic, openly aligned with Kostunica's Serb nationalists. During a riot on March 7, an Albanian supporter of the moderates, Enver Shkreli, was shot in both legs, apparently by Serbian police supporting the radicals.
Back in Kosova, a trip around the republic discloses further evidence that recognition does not mean sovereignty. Kosovars have yet to be issued passports, and the post offices have no stamps representing the new state--travel documents and the mail are still under the authority of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). More grating to many Kosovar Albanians has been the imposition of a denationalized Kosovo flag, blue with a gold map of the country and six white stars, in place of the traditional Albanian red and black double-eagle standard.
At the level of daily life, recognition without sovereignty could also be called recognition without power--a pun of sorts, since after eight years of foreign administration Kosova still sees its electrical system crash into darkness on a nightly and often daily basis. Austria is only now talking about donations to upgrade Kosova's schools. So what have the internationals accomplished since 1999, aside from accumulating exorbitant salaries, taking over the best neighborhoods, denying the Kosovars economic and political reform, and expressing a general contempt for the local inhabitants? Well, they have created a new class of prosperous local employees, who have learned English (because the internationals seldom study the Albanian language) and built their own upscale homes and districts. But the Albanian members of the U.N.-EU bureaucracy, while often the most robust defenders of Kosova's "paper independence," would doubtless suffer loss of income and status if the internationals left.
The Kosovar Albanian political leadership is widely seen as corrupt, and the existence of an underground economy in Kosova is undeniable, although it has little or nothing to do with lurid tales about drug dealing put forward by Serbian advocates. Given that the U.N. and EU have not permitted the establishment of secure local economic institutions, the growth of an uncontrolled economy was inevitable. Kosovars have a large diaspora sending money home from the United States, Germany, and Switzerland, and without financial stability inside the new republic the funds have to go somewhere. But there is a greater corruption in the rise of politicians and functionaries who owe their prosperity to their accommodation to and employment by the internationals.
On the night of March 12, I traveled with Albin Kurti, the popular leader of Kosova's Self-Determination movement, and a group of his colleagues to Dumnica, a tiny village on the northeastern frontier with Serbia. Dumnica is close to Merdare, where a Kosova Republic border sign was installed early in March. Serbian army reservists threatened to cross the frontier to tear down the marker, but were prevented from doing so by Serbian authorities, who appeared suddenly cautious after the worldwide public relations disaster represented by the mob attacks on the American and other foreign embassies in Belgrade late in February.
The area that includes Merdare and Dumnica is called Llap and has long been a center of Albanian patriotism. When Serbia conquered Kosova in 1912, Slav armies poured into the territory through Llap, and thousands of Albanians were slaughtered, their villages burned and possessions looted. Llap was also a major theater of fighting in the 1998-99 war. Villagers there are hard workers, good savers, and boast such amenities as camera cellphones and portable computers.
Kurti had come to Dumnica to explain his criticism of the Kosova political class and its acceptance of paper independence. The village is not shown on maps, and with the border unmarked, we joked about what might happen if we drove too far up the road and found ourselves in Serbian hands. The stars were brilliant in the deep, rural night. Finally, thanks to the ubiquity of cellphones, we were taken to a large house where the elders of the village were crowded into the special room reserved for guests. Outside, guards were posted while Kurti spoke.
What unfolded was a scene of traditional village democracy. Kurti presented his case for full independence, a real ministry of defense and an army and police, firm borders, a new constitution written by the Kosovars themselves rather than by foreign experts, and all the other institutions needed to prove that independence is real. He was answered, always respectfully but nonetheless critically, by some who said that at least Kosova now has its own standing in the world, and that the Albanians must be patient in waiting for complete freedom.
One of the most moderate speakers was an imam who had come to the meeting from Kacanik, at the other end of Kosova. Patriotic verses were recited and the names of past heroes invoked. For a foreign observer, nothing was more fascinating than the faces of the villagers--strong, intelligent, intent as they listened to Kurti, a man who can discuss Heidegger and postmodernism with facility, but who addressed this gathering simply and directly. Later, another Kosovar who disagrees with Kurti admitted that he is an exceptional speaker, calling him "the human laser, whose words go straight to people's hearts."
To my surprise, little was said in Dumnica about Serbia. To emphasize: The villagers, with their long collective memory, see Russia as the main enemy, standing behind and using Serbia. Finally, all Kosovars are grateful to America, but many are worried because American diplomatic representatives in Pristina too often call on the Albanians to stay silent, contradicting the strong stands of George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, whom the Kosovars admire.
Nevertheless, even on the Serbian border, the Kosovars betray no fear. Indeed, it occurred to me, watching the faces and listening to the sharp words of Albin Kurti, that there are two borders in Dumnica. One divides Serbia from Kosova. The other separates the old world of massacres, totalitarianism, Russian imperialism, and what Secretary Rice has criticized as the Serbian fixation with the past, from the new world of security, investment, democracy, and friendship with America. Nearly all the Albanians in Dumnica are Muslims, yet they act as if the war with radical Islam will be no more than an episode, while the danger of confrontation with Putin's neo-czarist expansionism has returned to bedevil the world.
And the news then on the front pages prompted this further reflection: Even as Kurti was speaking, on the other side of the world China--Russia's partner in U.N. obstruction of Kosova's full liberation--had sent troops to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, where dozens of demonstrators were shot dead. India, anxious to keep the torturers of Tiananmen Square happy, had arrested and beaten Tibetan demonstrators, and Nepal had surrendered to a Chinese demand to close its border and prevent protestors from heading to Mount Everest for a pro-Tibetan action. But the Tibetans in Lhasa, led by Buddhist monks even tougher than the martyrs of freedom in Burma not long ago, would come back to defy Communist bullets and tear gas. Over the weekend of March 16 and in the week that followed, Lhasa and other places would still be defying Chinese "order," and stone-throwing Tibetans would repeatedly be answered with rifle fire.
Kosova and Tibet, on the front lines between liberty and tyranny, make the case for a new international League of Democracies, from which Russia and China would perforce be excluded. It is a concept the country folk in Dumnica would understand.