Kosova: Stories the Press has Missed
Since Kosova declared its independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008, there has been media coverage of Serbia's negative response and the fragility of the "new state." The press has been fascinated by the sight of Serbs demonstrating in Belgrade and burning embassies but has little to say about the failure of Serbia to examine its own role in the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, particularly its actions in Bosnia and Kosova. Having covered the 1998-1999 war in Kosova and the 2008 declaration of independence, the press has overlooked the dismal performance of the UN administration of Kosova from 1999 to 2008. With this in mind, I offer the following five stories about Kosova that the media ought to have covered, starting in 1912.
An honorable exception is Leon Trotsky, who covered the Balkan Wars 1912-1913 and described how after the city of Prishtina had capitulated in 1912, Serb soldiers killed 5,000 more Albanians.
1. Ethnic cleansing was Serbia's policy in Kosova through most of the 20th century
Serbia conquered Kosova in 1912 from the Ottoman Empire, and took power against the will of the Albanian majority, which continued to fight the Serbian annexation well into the 1920s. The Great Powers allowed Serbia to keep Kosova as compensation for not being allowed to keep lands in northern Albania, also taken through warfare, that would have given Serbia access to the Adriatic Sea.
Serbian policies throughout the 20th century were then largely designed to change the demographics in Kosova. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1990s the Serbian-dominated Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and later Yugoslavia dispatched large numbers of Serbian colonists to Kosova. Albanian lands were expropriated and education for Albanians severely limited for decades. In the 1910s, 1950s, and 1990s, Serbs expelled Albanians and indigenous Turks from Kosova. These policies culminated in 1999 in the killing of over 10,000 Kosovar Albanians by Serb soldiers and paramilitary and the expulsion of over 800,000 Albanians from Kosova. The Kosovar Albanians have not forgotten that many Kosovar Serbs were actively complicit in this attempted genocide.
When I was at the University of Prishtina in 1987-1988 studying Albanian linguistics, there were three groups in the faculty lounge: Serbian faculty, Albanian faculty, and police informers. They didn't mingle. By 1991 all the Albanian faculty members were fired, all the Albanian students forbidden entry to the university, and many of the Albanian books in the National Library in Prishtina were recycled for pulp in a local paper mill south of Prishtina.
2. Serbian politicians, clerics, and media have failed to acknowledge Serb oppression, rape, expulsion, and killing of Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s.
Serbs appear to be living in a web that they and their leaders have woven where they are the only victims. It took the recent showing in Belgrade of a film on the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian men and boys in Sbrenica for this to begin to percolate into local consciousness. Two of the three main Bosnian Serb war criminals, Mladic and Karadjic, are still living in Serbia, despite repeated demands for their extradition by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague.
The Serbs have not even begun to acknowledge their war crimes in Kosova. What Serbs did learn in Bosnia was that bodies needed to be hidden more carefully, hence the five known mass graves of Kosovar Albanians in Serbia. However, there are still over 2,000 Kosovar Albanians missing, and Belgrade, which directed these reburials, has not been forthcoming. Further, while Albanians in general do not talk about rape, women's groups in Kosova estimate that over 8,000 Albanian women and girls were raped in the spring of 1999 by Serb soldiers and paramilitaries.
With all the concern over Serbian churches and monasteries in Kosova, they did survive over 500 years of Ottoman rule, and the local people, both Serb and Albanian, had something to do with this. There is virtually no talk of the 250 mosques that were destroyed or severely damaged in the fighting in 1999.
Without acknowledgement of past wrongs, it is unthinkable that Kosova would consider any form of sovereignty from Belgrade.
There was a UN sponsored plan to allow Serbs in northern Mitrovice to visit the graves of their relatives in the Christian cemetery in southern Mitrovice, while allowing the Albanians in southern Mitrovice to visit the graves of their relatives in the Muslim cemetery in northern Mitrovice. However, the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch of Nis preached from the pulpit in northern Mitrovice against this plan and denounced anyone who took part. Meanwhile the Muslim cemetery in the town of Zvecan, just north of Mitrovice, was turned into a playground and soccer field for Serb refugee/colonists from Croatia.
3. Kosova is not Bosnia
Kosovar Albanians and Serbs do not have a recent history of harmony like that in Bosnia before the Bosnian war. The proud goal of internationals to integrate the minority Serbs in Kosova does not acknowledge that Belgrade continues to foment animosity and to pay salaries to the minority Serbs in Kosova to keep them from working with Kosovar Albanians. Further, the Ahtisaari Plan for the future of Kosova still allows Belgrade to interfere in Kosova to "protect" Serb minorities.
So where does the pipedream of Kosovar Albanian and Serb harmony come from? Much of the UN staff in Kosova first served in Bosnia. They took goals from Bosnia, not particularly well implemented there, and tried to plant them in Kosova, whose history they do not know. Then, in 2001 when Michael Steiner was the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) in Kosova, the effective ruler of UN administered Kosova, he devised the slogan "standards before status." This was a stalling tactic when the UN was not interested in moving forward to new status for Kosova. These "standards" were devised without consultation with Albanians, well after the major work of rebuilding had been accomplished by Kosovar Albanians, and so over-represented the more difficult issues of Albanian-Serb relations. The "success" of the UN mission in Kosova then came to be evaluated by numbers of Serb "returnees," thereby keeping Kosova hostage to the Serb minority once again.
When I asked a UN staff person who had been in Prishtina for seven years why he had not bothered to learn Albanian, he said it made more sense to learn Serbian since in his salary reviews it would count as three languages (Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian).
4. The KFOR and UN administration of Kosova has largely been a boondoggle.
The UN Resolution 1244 that ended the fighting in Kosova in 1999 is an ambiguous and deeply flawed document that Russia encouraged Serbia to sign. The international force to protect Kosova, known as KFOR, divided Kosova into five segments, giving the most sensitive one to the French, long known for their sympathies with Serbia. This is the northern segment adjacent to Serbia and containing many of Kosova's mines. It was under the French, months after the war, that the city of Mitrovice was divided into a northern Serb area and a southern Albanian one. Most Albanians were expelled from the north, Serb paramilitary leaders moved in, and Serbia created a university there that is a political hotbed of Serb nationalism.
The UN administration established itself only slowly and ponderously in a place where it had the support of over 90% of the people. Internationals, virtually none of whom bothered to learn Albanian, are paid nine times what local people are paid. The head of the UN administration has the real authority in Kosova, despite the existence of elected municipal and parliamentary representatives. The men appointed by the UN Secretary General to head the UN mission in Kosova have tended to stay for less than two years each. Virtually no international staff have been fired in the nine years they have been there. Neither the UN staff nor the 16,000 strong KFOR soldiers anticipated the March 2004 riots in Kosova, nor were they effective in containing. them. For example the KFOR did not remove Serb roadblocks to major roads, they were unable to protect cultural landmarks, nor did they assist the local Kosovar police when requested.
The first report by Norwegian ambassador Kai Eide, commissioned by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan after the Kosova riots of March 2004, is a remarkably clear condemnation of the UN administration in Kosova. The "standards before status" was unworkable, there had been no progress toward status, the privatization process had been stalled, and the economy was in shreds. There must be a special circle in hell for UN mandates.
One agricultural consultant for the UN in Kosova kept a Serbian mistress whom he described as Polish. He had been working for two years on developing a local cheese. Another UN media consultant kept his Serbian wife in London, and dedicated the lion's share of his budget for the year to supporting the Serbian press in Kosova. Serbs constitute roughly 7% of the population of Kosova.
5. It's the economy, Eurocrats!
Some media reports are finally acknowledging the importance of the economy. Unemployment is officially 44% with especially low participation by young people and women. Kosova's main export in 2006 was scrap metal from disintegrating industrial sites. Serbian forces took property documents when they left in 1999, making it difficult to determine property rights. Privatization has been difficult with internationals in charge, and few people willing to invest in a place where status is in limbo. The socialist/communist past discouraged private initiative.
And yet there was remarkable economic activity initiated by Kosovar Albanian entrepreneurs in the 1990s in the face of expulsion from virtually all jobs by the Serbian authorities. The Albanian diaspora levied a 3% tax on themselves to support Albanian underground schools in Kosova the 1990s. Many Kosovar Albanians work in Europe and North America and have generously supported relatives in Kosova for years.
American and German models for industrial development are less suited to the economy than say Turkish ones of smaller concerns. The few successful economic establishments in Kosova work in tandem with Croatian and Slovenian companies. This should be encouraged. Local businessmen call for capital at lower interest rates. This too should be encouraged, rather than dependency on international funding.
Further, there are many Kosovars, both men and women, who demonstrated remarkable organizational skills in the 1990s in organizing parallel schools and social service clinics. The international agencies have largely ignored these people but they are still around. In addition there are bright well educated young Kosovar Albanians who should also be brought into the new administration.
May the new EU administration that will take over in June 2008 learn from the UN experience and not simply replicate it. This will be difficult since many of the people from the UN administration plan to stay on as it is unlikely they would find jobs with comparable pay and status in their home countries. I suggest massive housecleaning.
Frances Trix is an associate professor of linguistics and anthropology at Indiana University. She speaks Albanian and spent the summer of 2007 in Kosova doing research on Kosova under the UN administration.