The Shooting Star: Kosovo’s continuing limbo

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February 16, 2012 14:04

NOTE: This article was originally published on 1 March, 2009 on Foreign Policy Journal. It is being republished on the 4th anniversary of Kosovo’s declaration of independence for readers’ interest.

 

kosovo independence flag

Photo - Aardvark EF-111B

The giant of communism was on its knees and breathing its last in the late 1980s. The people of Balkans were dreaming independence and yearning for a peaceful and prosperous life which was denied by the communist dictators for the last four decades. While many people were optimistic about their future, fears were rearing in the back of the minds of pessimists who dreaded the substitution of one monster with another. And thats exactly what happened. Communism died a silent death while giving birth to ultra-nationalism.

slobodan milosevic war criminal

Slobodan Milosevic ruled with impunity from 1989 to 2000. He was ousted after massive protests broke out in Serbia against his corrupt and authoritarian rule. The new Serbian government extradited him to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands to stand trial for war crimes, genocide and crime against humanity. He died during his detention in 2006.

Exploiting the uncertain situation, Slobodan Milosevic rose from the ranks of the Yugoslav Communist party to become the President of Serbia, the dominant republic within the ailing federation in 1989. As a shrewd politician, Milosevic harped the tune of ethnic unity while consolidating the grip of nationalist Serbs at the expense of other groups. After the demise of the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, he declared the union of Serbia and Montenegro as its successor and quelled demand for the independence of Kosovo by force.

Slobodan Milosevic, branded as the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’, not only initiated an unprecedented campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, he also suppressed ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo and perpetrated acts of violence and terrorism against them. For the next ten years, what Albanians in Kosovo encountered was racial discrimination, political intimidation and systematic suppression of their cultural identity and social status.

yugoslav army headquarters

Remains of the Yugoslav Army headquarters bombed by NATO during the aerial campaign in 1999. Photo – Teddyboy

Ashamed of their collective indifference to acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by Milosevic’s regime in Bosnia from 1992-95, the Western leaders this time were swift in their response. Serbian military was targeted during an aerial NATO campaign that lasted for 78 days from March to June 1999. As a result, Milosevic withdrew his troops and agreed to the deployment of a UN-led peace force in the region.

Since then, we all know, the region is under the supervision of the international community led by the EU. As we are told, Kosovo is largely peaceful and has made considerable progress towards democracy and prosperity. The transition of disarming and incorporating the former guerrillas into civil society has been successful and the former rebel leader and chief Kosovo negotiator, Haschim Thaci, is now the prime minister of the newly declared independent republic.

I had no reason to doubt or disbelieve the accounts of mainstream media. And why should I be skeptic about a region which is under the aegis of international diplomats and bureaucrats? After all, they have brought peace and stability to a region that merely a decade ago was on the brink of becoming another Bosnia, isn’t it? Yes, I, along with countless people across the globe are constantly reminded of the ethnic divisions of Kosovo and the efforts carried out by the international community to heal them. To me, as an outsider, Kosovo always stood as a showcase of international resolve and commitment that displays the virtues of democracy and good governance and paves the way to greater integration and cooperation.

GROUND REALITIES

All seemed quite well until I met a Kosovar photojournalist Vedat Xhymshiti. The Gjilan-based cameraman and photographer has worked for numerous media organisations including New York Times, TIME and Der Spiegel. “Things must be going very well in Kosovo for you guys,” I asked Vedat out of contentment rather than curiosity. His reply, to my sheer surprise, was negative. Following is the tale of today’s Kosovo and an insight to the challenges this infant nation is facing despite being in international protection for a decade, told by a Kosovar native.

KFOR Kosovo peacekeepers

NATO-led KFOR (Kosovo Force) stationed in Kosovo since June 1999 under a UN mandate. It is tasked with mainly peace keeping responsibilities alongside providing support to country’s civilian institutions. Photo – Vedat Xhymshiti

“The KFOR have been able to establish peace in the country and have defeated attempts by some elements in the Kosovar society to form parallel security apparatus,” said Vedat while describing the role of the international force. Though he agrees that they have been providing security to the region and that they have managed to maintain public order in most parts of the country, he is not impressed by the designs of the international force.

“Yes I agree with you, Kosovo has benefitted a lot due to improved security,” he said adding that this is not the kind of security Kosovars are looking for. “We don’t need it because I can’t believe that even a single KFOR military officer is prepared to die in order to keep Albanians in Kosovo safe from Serbia” affirmed the 22-year-old student of media studies.

Kosovo’s Serb minority has staged several violent protests against the UN presence and resisted ethnic Albanian demands for independence. Photo - Vedat Xhymshiti

10 YEARS IN LIMBO

“The arrival of KFOR was greeted by the Kosovars. The Albanian Kosovars wanted them to maintain peace and stability and help them rebuild the country after years of neglect and systematic destruction by Milosevic’s regime. The Serbs living in Kosovo wanted them to protect from anticipated revenge attacks by Albanians. They never happened, at least on a massive scale. But what’s next?” asked Vedat with his big, green eyes. This is a kind of colony, he added bitterly.

Vedat, like many other Kosovars, wants the nation to be truly independent. And for them, true independence means having a fully functioning government, effective modern military, independent judiciary and free press. The demands, to me, seemed truly justifiable and legitimate. How on earth can a modern state function without these pillars?

kosovo independence flag

Majority of the Albanians supported the declaration of independence approved by the legislative assembly of Kosovo on 17 February, 2007. Photo – Kushtrim Krasniqi

Vedat, like many other Kosovars, want the nation to be truly independent. And for them, true independence means having a fully functioning government, effective modern military, independent judiciary and free press. The demands, to me, seemed truly justifiable and legitimate. How on earth can a modern state function without these pillars?

“But Vedat, everything comes at its own time. Kosovo is still an infant, isn’t it?” I asked the young man who was growing increasingly perturbed over the status quo of Kosovo. “We’re not free. We want our own army. This is what we fought for, we fought to have complete freedom, to protect our territory and the sons and daughters of this land,” exclaimed the Kosovar with frustration clear in his tone. He added that 10 years of international supervision has failed to fulfill the vision of many Kosovars like him. To supplement his viewpoint, he threw a few more questions to me to which I didn’t had a reasonable answer. “Why Britain has its own army? Why Serbia as well? Why can’t we have it?”

RULE & ROLE OF GOVERNMENT(S)

My curiosity to find out the governance model of Kosovo was met with utter surprise when Vedat started to explain the complex structure. “Our government?” he exclaimed adding there are five governments that are ruling the tiny landlocked republic. “Besides having a ‘government’ in Prishtina that is led by Kosovars, we have the International Civilian Office (ICO) that is led by EU special representative Peter Feith. Be aware of the fact that he is a very influential figure in Kosovo.

“But Vedat, everything comes at its own time. Kosovo is still an infant, isn’t it?” I asked the young man who was growing increasingly perturbed over the status quo of Kosovo. “We’re not free. We want our own army. This is what we fought for, we fought to have complete freedom, to protect our territory and the sons and daughters of this land,” exclaimed the Kosovar with frustration clear in his tone. He added that 10 years of international supervision has failed to fulfill the vision of many Kosovars like him. To supplement his viewpoint, he threw a few more questions to me to which I didn’t had a reasonable answer. “Why Britain has its own army? Why Serbia as well? Why can’t we have it?”

RULE & ROLE OF GOVERNMENT(S)

My curiosity to find out the governance model of Kosovo was met with utter surprise when Vedat started to explain the complex structure. “Our government?” he exclaimed adding there are five governments that are ruling the tiny landlocked republic. “Besides having a ‘government’ in Prishtina that is led by Kosovars, we have the International Civilian Office (ICO) that is led by EU special representative Peter Feith. Be aware of the fact that he is a very influential figure in Kosovo.

kosovo independence ahtisaari plan

Thousands of ethnic Albanians in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, have protested against the United Nations’ interim Kosovo mission (UNMIK), the Kosovo government, and the Ahtisaari Plan, demanding complete independence. Photo – Vedat Xhymshiti

“Then we have the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Though its charter maintains that its mission is not to govern or rule Kosovo, the reality is just the opposite. Our judicial and law enforcement system is yet to function thanks to the ‘EULEX cooperation’,” added the sarcastic Kosovar photojournalist. The remaining powers, he added, are the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Serbian government that effectively controls Serb dominated northern towns of Kosovo. His response towards these five entities was not welcoming either. “They’re corrupt (Kosovo government) and being corrupt they are forced to act in the interest of international politics rather than in the interest of Kosovar people,” said a very critical Kosovo national. “None of them are accountable to the people of Kosovo.”

The claims of this angry young man started to ring my bells. Though I trusted his claims and respected the fact that he spoke to me very freely and honestly about it, I still wanted some facts that corroborated his story. Very soon, I found something that substantiated his claims.

THE WATCHDOG SAYS

After having a look at the Amnesty International website, I was surprised and alarmed when I came across the following facts mentioned in the 2008 report. The report starts with AI accusing the UNMIK of failing to implement measures that ensured access to redress and reparations for violations of human rights committed by members of the international community. The watchdog also expressed its concern over the alleged violation of law committed by the UNMIK appointed Ombudsperson.

The report also highlights the case of two NGO activists who were killed and another activist who was injured by Romanian Formed Police Unit during a peaceful demonstration that took place on 10 February 2007 in Prishtina. AI goes on to say that the trial of Albin Kurti, the head of NGO that opposes Ahtisaari Plan and demands that the EULEX cease its operations in Kosovo and leave immediately, was not conducted in accordance with law applicable in Kosovo or international standards for fair trial.

kosovo racak massacre

On 15 January, 1999 a massacre was carried out by Serb troops in the valley of Račak in Kosovo. At least 45 men, women and children died in hail of bullets. The oldest was 99 and had survived two world wars, the youngest was just 14. Photo – Barolodrinker

Expressing its disappointment over the progress of war crimes trials, the Amnesty International noted that some 1,998 missing persons remained unaccounted for at the end of the year, including 1,300 Albanians, 500 Serbs and 200 members of other minorities. “UNMIK failed to report to the Human Rights Committee, as required in 2006, on measures taken to address impunity for war crimes including enforced disappearances. A lack of prompt and effective investigation, the absence of witness protection, a backlog of appeal cases and a declining number of international judiciary and prosecutors to consider cases of war crimes, contributed to continuing impunity for these crimes,” mentions the report published by the respected human rights body.

ORGANIZED CRIME

Vedat Xhymshiti is highly critical of his government and accuses it of carrying out organized crimes and human trafficking in connivance with the UNMIK, EULEX and the ICO. “What the 10 years of international control has yielded is a rule of corrupt mafia that is involved in drugs, forced prostitution, illegal arms and the list goes on” revealed the Gjilan-based photojournalist. To double my surprise, he added that current administration in Prishtina enjoys high profile links with mafia cartels around the world.

thaci mafia allegations

Prime Minister of Kosovo Hashim Thaci (3rd right hand side) engaged with chief EU negotiator Javier Solana (1st left hand side). Kosovo’s leadership has come under increased criticism for its alleged ties with mafia and organized crime networks. Photo – Drenicaliu

His claim seems to be an open secret. Recently, I came across an interview of Italian journalist Roberto Saviano in which he claimed that the Albanian mafia in Kosovo “dream” about turning the country into a “European Colombia”. “In order to achieve this, they wish to genetically engineer a type of coca plant that would grow in Kosovo’s climate. This way, the Albanian mafia would have a monopoly over the cocaine trade. They need 20 years to achieve this,” he said while adding that “then, Kosovo will without a doubt become the new Colombia.” The revelation comes from the author of the best seller “Gomorra – a look at the Naples mafia”, that has already been made into an award-winning movie. The price Saviano is paying for investigations into organized crime and mafias is living a life under round-the-clock police protection while constantly receiving threats from the gangs for writing the book and uncovering the underworld hierarchy.

TOTTERING ECONOMY

Being under the impression that Kosovo’s euro-run economy must be booming being under international supervision and having access to foreign investment, my another hope was crushed by reality. “More than 70% of the population is unemployed. We have no jobs, the infrastructure is bad, and the divide between the rich and the poor has grown tremendously during the last 10 years,” Vedat said while blaming incessant free market policies for most of the ills.

kosovo child labor

A Kosovar kid selling cigarettes on a stall in capital Prishtina after midnight. Poverty remains a contentious issue in the newborn republic. Photo – Vedat Xhymshiti

END SOLUTION

Surprised and bewildered by Vedat’s insight, I put forward my final question. “What are the hopes and aspirations of the people of Kosovo?” to which he had a stream of replies. “Look, first of all, we do not have any hope with the current leadership, both Kosovar and international,” adding that the last 10 years of failed political and economic policies have left the masses frustrated and disillusioned.

“My aspiration, along with my fellow countrymen, is the unification of Kosovo with Albania,” Vedat admitted unhesitatingly. “We are trying to achieve this since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1912. We want to establish an Albanian republic that incorporates Albanians living in Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albanians of Montenegro, Albanians of southern Serbia in Presevo valley, as well as the Albanians of Kosovo,” said Vedat in a resolute tone. This vision, to me, seemed nothing less than the aspirations of Kurds living in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. History shows us that both the regions have been the target of imperialist designs that kept them as divided as possible in order to rule with impunity.

kosovo albanian dress

Albanians are a distinct ethnic group and are the descendants of the ancient Illyrians. More than 9 million people live in the Balkans, majority of which lives in Albania. Photo – Alkimisti

Puzzled whether a peaceful democratic way will take them forward or militancy will spearhead the unification movement, I asked which side he supports. He seemed to be more of a supporter of democracy. However, he refused to have faith in the democratic institutions of Kosovo. Insisting that Kosovo’s leadership has failed to deliver its promises, the young photojournalist added that politicians have betrayed the masses time and again. “We are not negotiating with Serbia for our future, they (Kosovo’s leadership) said but they did. They promised jobs and territorial integrity of Kosovo but it never materialized.”

“Personally I have never voted and I will not vote until we get real freedom,” pledged the Kosovar with determination in his eyes. Already stunned by the facts that I discovered, it was easier for me to grapple with the realities than debate over unclear future.

Vedat Xhymshiti is a freelance photojournalist based in Gjilan, Kosovo. He can be contacted at vedat.xh@gmail.com. More of his journalistic work can be seen on http://http://balkanpressagency.com/

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