Interview with anonymous UN official

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Eastern Europe, Interviews

On the international community

In 1999, after the NATO bombing, the international community deployed in Kosovo with a clear perception that the Kosovo Albanians were the victims and that the Serbs were the bad guys. If you were only looking what took place in Kosovo during the bombing, that headline made sense. But then the Kosovo Albanians came back and there were revenge attacks against ethnic Serbs. The result was thousands of Serbs leaving or being kicked out. It took a while for the international community to figure out just how complex the situation was.

In those early months, the international community dropped the ball in terms of who was being protected and who wasn’t. The trauma of dropping the ball in those early months tuned everyone in to the minority issue. Everyone became hypersensitive and started to see the conflict through the somewhat simplistic prism of ethnic conflict.

So the solution was to try to empower the minorities through, for example, positive discrimination in the Assembly and in the municipalities. This approach, however, created incentives for different groups to hold on to their ethnic identities – and sometimes create new ethnic identities. The unintended consequence was that ethnic identity became even more entrenched. In terms of fostering a modern democratic system, it had bizarre consequences but was perhaps a necessary way to deal with a post-war situation.

What we all want is a functioning democratic society with parties that have modern, democratic ideologies that transcend ethnic divides. Instead you got parties along ethnic lines – Turkish parties, Bosniak parties, an Ashkali party – entrenching those identities. For instance the Egyptians are basically Roma. But they feel compelled as well to have an incentive to group around their particular ethnic identity. According to their creation myth, they came 2,500 years ago from Egypt to the Balkans. The Egyptian ambassador in Tirana apparently went out of his way to say that this group has nothing to do with Egypt. This was of course devastating for them.

A UN bureaucrat in Prizren in the early days of the mission found people in the Dragash area. Apparently there was a discussion about what they should be called. They settled on gorani. Several countries have since laid claim to them. Bulgarians offered them passports and claimed that they are ethnic Bulgarians. Skopje is also laying claim to the gorani. This has also contributed to the goranis being internally split with regard to their own identity.

The entrenching of these categories of difference was bizarre, but maybe it was not such a bad idea. I’m still on the fence. Obviously we could have focused more on civic identity. But given the context maybe this was not possible. Half of Kosovo’s population was returning home. The UN was scrambling to provide humanitarian assistance and basic services such as water and trash collection while trying to administer Kosovo. There wasn’t the luxury of time or perfect information.

The OSCE in Kosovo used to have a policy that every program had to promote multi-ethnicity in some way. So there was multiethnic aerobics. There were multi-ethnic markets. There was multiethnic beekeeping (which was rejected). So, there were thousands of different multiethnic projects. The aerobics one was a success actually, even though it might sound stupid. Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs got together to do aerobics, and they got along. A lot of projects like that can be very effective at the micro level.

A major impediment to reconciliation, however, is the unresolved status question. Inter-ethnic cooperation will always be highly politicized as long as there is no clarity on Kosovo’s status. Serbs cooperating with Albanians will be seen as furthering Kosovo’s independence.

Nobody wants to be a minority. The Serbs don’t want to be a minority in Kosovo; the Albanians don’t want to be a minority in Serbia. This is the case even though being a minority in Kosovo provides certain guarantees.

On statebuilding

I’m completely humbled after working for nearly four years in peacekeeping and state-building. You’re expected to do everything at hyper-speed and achieve in a decade that which usually takes hundreds of years.

UNMIK was in a hopeless situation from the outset: in 1999, Albanians wanted independence and they got UNMIK instead. The conditions were not there for UNMIK to be received in any objective way. All of UNMIK’s work instantly became politicized.

Take the one of the main successes: the Kosovo Police Force. The UN created a local police force from scratch. As the local police gained more experience, the UN handed over more responsibilities. Today, the KPS does most of the policing, though the most sensitive and difficult work is still being carried out by international police.

But ask the average Kosovar and he’ll say, “Hand over absolutely all the competencies.” But it wouldn’t work. The police force would collapse. It’s impossible for the Kosovars to acknowledge the success of the police force, that the model is fairly functional, since these competencies are linked to status. The responsibilities that the UN still has by definition set a limit on their status.

UNMIK is so intimately connected to the status quo. If the political process is on track to independence, then the Kosovo Albanians think UNMIK is doing fine. But if the status quo veers away, then UNMIK becomes a major obstacle.

There is this racism in Kosovo. Some of the UNMIK police are from Africa. You will sometimes hear Kosovars say, “What can this black guy from Africa teach us? We’re better than Africans.”

On the EU

Even though they may wish it, people here realize that they can’t be the 51st state of the United States. EU membership is still the only realistic choice. The EU is still the goal. But they also realize that the EU is a fair-weather friend. A lot of EU foreign ministers are sympathetic to Serbia and its claim over Kosovo.

There’s a strong desire by Albanians to be European. Many people are reluctant to talk about being Muslim because they realize that many in the West today don’t look upon Islam favorably. It’s easier to play down Islam. The late President of Kosovo Ibrahim Rugova at one point suggested that all Kosovars should convert to Catholicism. He was himself something of a closet Catholic.

On Albanian identity

Kosovo Albanian society is a traumatized society. This becomes evident when you got to Albania. Look at the fixation in Kosovo with the Albanian flag. You find it everywhere in Kosovo but hardly anywhere in Albania. Secondly, the eagle on Albanian flags in Kosovo is enormous while in Albania the eagle is tiny. The size of the eagle compensates for not having independence.

There has been a social transformation in the Albanian youth society. This has always been a very conservative society, very traditional, and now there is this very hyper-speed transition to modernity. Walk around Pristina and look at the youth. Parts of it could be downtown Manhattan. The urban youth of Pristina are very impressive.

At the same time, you have this clash of civilization between the urban elite and the dirt-poor rural areas. The rural youth are completely disenfranchised and have little prospect for a better life. They basically have little to lose. If things go bad, they’ll be the ones who take to the streets.

On independence

Kosovo is definitely on the road to independence. It’s really a question of when and how messy it will be. There may very well be a reverse Taiwan scenario, a scenario of partial recognition but with the big Western states recognizing it. The risk of Kosovo turning into a frozen conflict is real and perhaps inevitable, given where Serbia and Russia stand.

The question of Kosovo’s status could easily split the EU. Then Kosovo will be a mess. I think the best that can be hoped for is that the skeptics and the wobblies in the EU refrain from blocking the others, who are in a majority, from going ahead with recognition. If the EU can get its act together, it can take ownership of the issue. Russia has made clear it will veto a resolution opening up for Kosovo’s independence in the Security Council. They’ll maintain their position. They’ll block anything that leads to independence. So, the Security Council will not be part of the process in any substantive way. Berlin is still traumatized by the recognition of Croatia in the early 1990s. But I’m fairly confident that Germany will knock heads in the EU and convince at least some of the wobblies and the skeptics to “constructively abstain” when the time comes to decide to move forward on independence.

On Serbia

For Serbia, any politician who accepts Kosovo’s independence commits political suicide. No politician can every explicitly accept that. Whoever loses Kosovo, 500 years from now the Serbs will be singing songs about the guy, damning him.

There are people working in the police force in the north who might kick up a bit of fuss after independence. But the Serbs are scared of the Kosovo Albanians, are afraid of their marching all over them. The average age of Albanians is 25. The average Serb in Kosovo is over 50. The demographics are quite telling and perhaps the most significant determinant in the conflict.

Serbia has proposed substantial autonomy. They can talk about the details, about how it would work institutionally. Okay, let’s say that happens. Then what? What happens the next day? They have this notion that they have to hold on to Kosovo. But they can’t really do it since the Albanians would never accept being ruled from Belgrade. Serbia has no vision for Kosovo.

On corruption

Kosovo has a terrible reputation abroad. Everyone thinks it’s a black hole when it comes to corruption. It’s important to keep in mind that corruption is a regional problem. Sure, it exists in Kosovo, but not the way people talk about it. That’s the way Belgrade talks about it: the whole government in Kosovo is corrupt and they’re not ready to have a state.

When it comes to organized crime, Serbs and Albanians get along great. As long as it has to do with business, making money, smuggling across borders.

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