by Stephen Schwartz
03/31/2008, Volume 013, Issue 28
A month has passed since Kosovo 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 Kosovo.
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.
Kosovo 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 kosovothanksyou.com) grows longer almost
daily. But notwithstanding wild claims by Serbia and its supporters that Kosovo
would become an Islamic republic, the Arab states and Iran are notably absent
from the inventory. The only Muslim countries that had recognized Kosovo by
March 20 were Afghanistan, Turkey, Senegal, and Malaysia. Informed opinion in
Arab circles holds that recognizing Kosovo 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 Kosovo, 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 Kosovo, 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 Kosovo's northern frontiers.
Whether Belgrade will actually throw itself into a full-scale provocation
against Kosovo 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
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 Kosovo. 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 Kosovo, 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
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 Kosovo still sees its electrical system crash into darkness on a
nightly and often daily basis. Austria is only now talking about donations to
upgrade Kosovo'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 Kosovo'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 Kosovo 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
On the night of March 12, I traveled with Albin Kurti, the popular leader of
Kosovo'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 Kosovo 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
The area that includes Merdare and Dumnica is called Llap and has long been a
center of Albanian patriotism. When Serbia conquered Kosovo 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 Kosovo 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 Kosovo now has its own standing in
the world, and that the Albanians must be patient in waiting for complete
One of the most moderate speakers was an imam who had come to the meeting from
Kacanik, at the other end of Kosovo. 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 Kosovo.
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
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 Kosovo'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.
Kosovo 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
Stephen Schwartz writes frequently about the
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