Too Much "Help"?
by Stephen Schwartz
PRISHTINA, Kosova — Some of the freshest and most distinctive voices of "new Europe"--Donald Rumsfeld's term for the former-Communist states that have joined the reunited continent as ardent supporters of capitalism, democracy, and other conservative values--are sounding off in a place so new, in its own way, that less than a decade ago most Americans had never heard of it: Kosova.
Isolated by the Albanian language, an ancient Indo-European tongue with no obvious relatives, as well as by the long-standing hostility of their rapacious neighbors, the Kosovars have preserved much in their culture that is old and valuable. But young Kosovar Albanian intellectuals and civil society activists are aware they have a lot of catching up to do. And they are eager to get the process in motion.
The march of new Europe into global politics may prove surprising at many points. Western pundits once predicted that the Czech Republic of Vaclav Havel would inspire a neo-hippie revival, with a vision resuscitated from 1968. Instead, Catholic Poland, which just elected a militantly anti-Communist and pro-American government, has demonstrated that, in line with the religious sensibilities of its population, it will not accept "European" imposition of liberal standards on abortion and homosexuality. Given that many new European countries are traditional in their approach to religion and culture, more such declarations should be expected.
For their part, Kosovar Albanians are touching in their devotion to the United States and to the American model of entrepreneurship and popular sovereignty. Rumsfeld's trope about the European schism is so popular among them that it confers upon him an exaggerated reputation as an intellectual--one Albanian author asked me if it is true that the defense secretary is a Straussian. (I recommended he examine Rumsfeld's speeches online and read Leo Strauss's works for himself.)
Still, even five years after their rescue from Slobodan Milosevic by NATO firepower, Kosovars see themselves at the beginning, rather than the end, of a process of liberation. Communism--which most Albanians viewed as nothing more than an ideological mask for Slavic imperialism--is gone, and Serbia is held at bay by NATO troops. But the "international community" administering Kosova embodies a new colonialism, represented by the United Nations, the European Community, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. (The OSCE uses American tax dollars to engage in such antics as offering to monitor the 2004 U.S. presidential elections for possible fraud.)
The United Nations administration is identified by most Albanians with a deliberate policy of preserving the old Communist economy by blocking privatization, which leaves Kosova with an unemployment rate above 60 percent. In confronting the U.N.'s occupying authority, the Kosovars say they find themselves in a situation more like that of Belarus, which groans under a neo-Stalinist dictatorship, than that of Poland.
Furthermore, thanks to the enthusiastic endorsement of the Clinton State Department and its permanent staff as long as Colin Powell was in charge, the United Nations, OSCE, and their accomplices set up draconian restrictions on media and other public activities in the province. Political and cultural meetings, creation of print and broadcast media, and educational activities all require the permission of the international bureaucrats. (And many of those whose misrule has created discontent in Kosova have, unfortunately, moved on to work in Iraq.) The most interesting political group in Kosova, a movement titled "Self-Determination!" (Vetëvendosje, in Albanian), cannot function as a legal entity or launch a newspaper because it is denied registration under European-fostered rules for civic advocacy.
So "Self-Determination!" has recourse to other means: Its members prowl abroad by night, adding spray-painted letters to the ubiquitous U.N. initials on white "international" vehicles, so they read "FUND," "the end" in Albanian, or "TUNG," "good-bye." "Self-Determination!" activists who have appeared at public events have been arrested and beaten, just as in Communist times, except that the police abusing them are Germans and other foreigners rather than Albanians or even Serbs.
"Self-Determination!" was founded in 2004 as the continuation of a small human-rights group, the Kosova Action Network (KAN), backed by Alice Mead, an American children's author long known for her interest in the plight of Kosovars. KAN addressed some long-standing topics, such as the fate of Albanian prisoners missing and presumed dead in Serbia, but it also took on an issue that the United Nations has ignored: education. Neglect by the U.N. local administration has led to several strikes by grossly underpaid teachers, who receive less than 200 euros a month. Doctors are paid marginally better, but drivers, translators, and even cleaning staff in "international" offices--sometimes the sons and daughters of teachers and doctors--can make four or five times that amount. Security guards are often the best-paid local personnel. Although Albanians do not attack foreigners, the "internationals" are visibly afraid of the populace.
"Self-Determination!" is the main force exposing these distortions in the lives of Kosovars, and its main spokesman, Albin Kurti, a 30-year-old former student leader, is the very symbol of protest. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Milosevic regime in 1999, during the NATO intervention, for serving as a public representative of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). At the end of 2001, Kurti was released, but expressed his outrage that hundreds of other Kosovars arrested with him remained behind bars in Serbia, declaring that he had never asked for a pardon or amnesty.
The tall, articulate Kurti spoke late last month at the London School of Economics on the negotiation of Kosova's final status, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently put near the top of the U.S. global agenda. When I met Kurti in Kosova a few days later, the first thing to strike me about him was his deep voice, which gives him considerable gravity. His main argument for the independence of Kosova is that, without it, the territory cannot take on the state debt it needs for economic progress, which he affirmed should be based on free-market principles. The United Nations remains his main target: "We are fighting the U.N. on the basis of U.N. principles of decolonization," he said with a laugh.
He also described an independent Kosova as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, with Kosovar Albanians at least 85 percent Muslim. Traveling inside the province, I was amused to observe the mutual astonishment of a high NATO officer and a representative of Catholic Relief Services, after their conditioning by misreporting on Iraq, when they were repeatedly told by high Kosovar Muslim dignitaries that among Albanians, the distinction between Sunnis and Shias is irrelevant. At the same time, Saudi charities under investigation for terror financing continue to operate in the territory, pursuing the ideological agenda of Wahhabism, the state religion of the Saudi Arabia. But Wahhabis are treated with open contempt by Albanian Muslims, who upon observing the fanatics' Arabian style of dress, peculiar beards, and other characteristics, call them "space aliens."
Nevertheless, Kurti warned that the longer Kosova independence is delayed, the more young people will be drawn to Wahhabi radicalism. In London, Kurti lashed out at the United Nations for preventing the civic development of the province, so that political involvement leads to corruption, and vice versa. In words that apply as much to Putin's neo-authoritarian Russia as to Kosova, Kurti declared, "Corruption is inseparable from the antidemocratic character of the system. You can't fill a non-democratic system with honest people."
United Nations functionaries and other "internationals" worry that an independent Kosova would fuse with the country to its southwest, to form a "greater Albania." But Kosovar Albanians repudiate the notion, evincing the same lack of enthusiasm South Koreans express about the concept of immediate unification with the Communist north. Albania proper is poorer, more violent, and even more corrupt than Kosova, and, besides, the Kosovars increasingly demonstrate a commitment to the development of a permanent, independent cultural identity. A similar sense of cultural differences saturates the struggle for civic reform in Albania, which is centered in the northern city of Shkodra, traditionally Catholic and fiercely anti-Communist.
EN ROUTE TO KOSOVA, in Shkodra I met the dissident journalist and author Blendi Kraja, who agrees with Kosovar intellectuals that northern Albanians have a distinct character that should be reinforced, not drowned by merger in a common state. Kraja has undergone considerable harassment from Communist-era cultural commissars who retain their power, and who act in alliance with judicial and other authorities left over from the Stalinist dictatorship that ruled--and ruined--the country from 1944 to 1991. In a situation as surprising to foreigners as the lack of a Sunni-Shia divide, Kraja, a Muslim, is struggling to revive the audience for Albanian Catholic authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and to immortalize their martyrdom (most were brutally killed) at the hands of the Communist order.
But Kraja has other, and more interesting plans: He wants to publish the Federalist Papers, selections from Franklin, Madison's Notes of the Constitutional Convention, and the outstanding speeches of the American presidents in cheap Albanian-language editions.
Meetings with individuals like Kurti and Kraja reinforce a sense of possibility about the Albanians' entry into modern Europe. Yes, only 6 million people speak their language; but fewer speak Finnish or Danish, which has been no obstacle to entrepreneurship, accountability, or democracy in Finland or Denmark. Besides, like the Finns and Danes, the Kosovar Albanians have proven eager to learn English. Once the United Nations and its satellites have been removed from Kosova, the future of the Albanians may be brighter than many expect: The newest members of political Europe could someday be among the most prosperous and successful.
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