Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2003, pages 38-39, 92

Special Report

Still at Loggerheads, Kosovo’s Serb, Albanian Communities Continue to Stagnate

By Peter Lippman

Few would covet the job of the international officials governing Kosovo. Three and a half years after NATO drove Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime out of the province, Kosovo’s problems seem as intractable as ever. While the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has managed, for the most part, to subdue the postwar bedlam that reigned when the U.N. established its de facto protectorate, Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians remain at loggerheads, with both populations suffering from political and economic stagnation.

After an absence of two years, this writer visited Kosovo in October and November. On the surface, there were many changes. Houses that had been torched during or after the war by now had been removed, and many others sported fresh coats of mortar and paint. Indeed, new homes—most of them privately financed—are being built in many areas of Kosovo.

Bright shops and restaurants proliferate, and the piles of garbage festering on street corners have disappeared. There is a noticeable presence of police officers, both men and women. In some towns such as Gjakova (Djakovica), whole neighborhoods that were destroyed in 1999 by Serb paramilitaries and special forces now have been rebuilt.

The Kosovo Albanian idolization of the U.S. and Bill Clinton has taken concrete expression. The “Victory Hotel” at the entrance to Pristina is crowned with a 20-foot-high Statue of Liberty. A 2.2-mile boulevard nearby has been refurbished and renamed “Bill Clinton,” graced by a prominent 40-foot high photo of the former president. Shop owners—of corner stores, marble supply and tailor shops—ýre naming their businesses after Clinton, and at least one Pristina restaurant has taken the name “Hillary.” For that matter, Albanian parents are naming their newborn children “Madeleine,” “Tony Blair,” and “Bill Clinton,” after the international figures Albanians consider their liberators.

Although NATO freed Albanian citizens of Kosovo from Milosevic’s brutal regime in 1999, they are not, in fact, liberated. Employment in the province is below 50 percent. Albanian friends have told me that their average earnings are around $150 per month, but that, in the winter, heating costs alone can consume two-thirds of that income. Ordinary people survive only through ingenuity enhanced by illegality. No one crosses a nearby international border—of which there are four—without thinking about what he or she can bring back to sell, legally or otherwise.

Cigarettes and fuel are especially popular commodities to smuggle. In the frontier buffer zone between Kosovo and Montenegro, tankers from Montenegro line up to sell their black market gasoline to young men who will carry it into Kosovo, often in cans bundled on a donkey’s back. Another mode of delivery is to run long hose lines across the border at night. The U.N. troops that patrol Kosovo (KFOR) are not allowed in the buffer zone, and have not worked vigilantly to curb the smuggling. As a result, both Montenegro and Kosovo lose massive amounts in unpaid taxes—but ordinary people manage to stave off one more day of ruin.

The long-term key to the revival of Kosovo, as with other newly “independent” but faltering states in the region, is international investment. Since the end of the war in June 1999, several billion dollars in international aid have poured into the country. Much of this money has been used to repair houses, schools, roads and other infrastructure. A vast proportion of it, however, has been used to support an overgrown international bureaucracy, to pay careerist international officials, or to “boomerang” back to foreign suppliers. The preponderance of funds has come from governments rather than private investors.

In spite of the influx of funds, then, very little has been invested in domestic industries that could eventually drive a healthy economy. Foreign direct investment would be encouraged if several ongoing problems were solved. These include the presence of organized crime and the uncertainty of Kosovo’s final political status. Both problems militate against significant development of a local economy. In the absence of concrete signs of improvement, young Kosovo Albanians are starting to do what Bosnians have been doing for several years: leaving the country for any place they may have a chance of employment.

A further source of ongoing distress for Kosovo’s Albanians is the unresolved question of missing persons. In the year leading up to and including the NATO intervention, approximately 12,000 people were killed. Of that number, only around 8,000 bodies have been found; the rest still lie in undiscovered graves. Some of the victims have been located in secret graves as far away as the Batajnica police grounds in central Serbia. The unresolved mystery of Kosovo’s 4,000 missing Albanians continues to inflame the s’ lingering animosity toward Serbs.

While many Kosovo Serbs took part in the persecution of Albanians before and during NATO’s intervention, Kosovo’s Serb population nevertheless is composed of human beings in great difficulty. Around two-thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs fled the province upon the defeat of Milosevic’s forces; some of those who attempted to stay were subjected to terror attacks by angry Albanians returning from exile. The 80,000-odd Serbs who have remained in Kosovo live exclusively in enclaves protected by KFOR troops. Their economic situation is even more dismal than that of the Albanians, and they remain confounded by their extreme nationalist leaders.

There is not a Kosovo Albanian alive who will accept the reunification of Kosovo with Serbia. This is clear to the Serbs of Kosovo and to all international officials who are remotely familiar with the situation. Yet most leaders of Kosovo’s Serbs resolutely promote reunification. They look to Belgrade for prompting on political questions, rather than considering collaboration with the Albanians toward a local resolution of their problems.

Meanwhile, it is just as clear to politicians in Belgrade that there is no practical possibility of reunification. However, although Yugoslavia’s former President Milosevic now resides in a prison at The Hague, extreme nationalist ideas thrive in Serbia. Just as prominent Serbian leaders still call for the unification of Serbia with Bosnia’s Serb entity, the issue of reunification with Kosovo continues to be an object of manipulation by rival politicians vying for popularity.

Thus the Kosovo Serbs are little more than a political football for their opportunistic leaders—both within Kosovo and in Serbia. Their enclaves are festooned with extreme nationalist symbols, religious icons, and photographs of nationalist Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic. In the divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica, the “Bridge Watchers” stand guard at the crossing over the river Ibar, menacing and often attacking any non-Serb who dares to approach. Very few displaced Serbs have returned to areas of Kosovo other than the enclaves that they control. And, to this point, this is an understandable response to threats from vengeful Albanians.

For the present, therefore, there is precious little hope for reconciliation between the two main ethnic populations of Kosovo, of whom the Albanians compose around 90 percent. A number of resolutions have been proposed to address this dilemma, including partition of Kosovo, territorial trade, and “decentralization.” The international community is adamantly opposed to partition, fearing that the re-annexation of a part of Kosovo to Serbia could encourage a similar development in Bosnia. There has been discussion of trading Albanian majority-populated parts of Serbia (Presevo and Bujanovac, where Albanian guerrillas mounted a rebellion during part of 2001) for Mitrovica. It is doubtful, however, that this would please either side.

UNMIK head Michael Steiner has introduced a plan for the decentralization of Kosovo’s government that would place local power in the hands of communities regardless of their ethnicity. Such an arrangement would increase Serb autonomy, giving local communities the ability to manage for themselves issues of education, health care, local infrastructure and, to some extent, economic development. Introduction of a system of decentralization naturally presupposes the readiness of affected communities to participate in the governance of a Kosovo whose political status is undefined, but which is certainly not moving toward reunification with Serbia.

As the Oct. 26 municipal elections demonstrated, however, it turns out that the Serb population of Kosovo is not ready to participate in a Kosovo that is de facto governed independently of Serbia.

Municipal Elections

Some 1.3 million citizens of Kosovo were registered to vote in the municipal elections. Of this figure, approximately 200,000 were displaced Serbs living in Serbia and Montenegro. The internationally administered polls—the third in two years—were conducted more smoothly than ever. But the overall turnout of Serbs, most of them voters within Kosovo, failed to reach 20 percent. Participation among refugees in Serbia and Montenegro was minimal.

In the run-up to the elections, international officials and Albanian activists promoted the idea that solidifying democracy on the municipal level would be an important step toward resolving Kosovo’s final status. Official Serb representatives vacillated, however, about whether to encourage Serb participation in the elections. Some outspokenly opposed participation, arguing that this would give legitimacy to the “occupation” they so vehemently oppose. Very late in the process, governmental officials in Serbia proclaimed that it would be beneficial for the Serbs to participate. Just before the elections, Serb spokesmen in Kosovo announced that Serbs should vote in municipalities where they had a majority.

As a result of this policy, the Kosovo Serbs won majority representation in five municipalities, but took very few seats elsewhere. And a boycott in northern Mitrovica, controlled by Serbs since the end of the war, resulted in only 113 votes being cast there.

This is a disaster for the prospects of Serb integration into Kosovo’s political processes, as it leaves the Serb population with seriously limited avenues for participation. This, in turn, inhibits the possibility of decentralization. Some Serbs now are saying that it is the responsibility of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to move ahead with decentralization—even to appoint Serb members to the municipal assemblies. At the same time, other Serb leaders are still calling the U.N. Mission an occupation.

The significance of the recent elections and their impact on the future of Kosovo are open to wide interpretation. UNMIK spokesman Simon Haselock announced that the 55 percent overall voter turnout is something that Western societies would view with envy. Prominent Kosovo publisher and commentator Veton Surroi noted, however, that over 40 percent of the electorate did not vote—a striking drop in participation from the more than 70 percent turnout for the two previous elections. Surroi views this abstention as a resounding statement of lack of faith in the current democratization process.

This year, many Albanians chose their representatives out of habit. The voting process, in fact, was based on a “closed list” system, whereby voters only selected the party of their choice, rather than electing specific candidates. Many who abstained were put off by this lack of opportunity to choose their preferred representatives, while others simply failed to see what difference a third election in two years could possibly make in their lives.

Those who did vote tended to base their choice on loyalty, either to the party of President Ibrahim Rugova, as a moderate who has good relations with the international community, or to the party of the more militant Hashim Thaci, former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Thus, the elections did not really reflect grassroots political involvement.

In the aftermath, Haselock has called on the newly elected Albanian officials to exercise their democratic responsibilities by representing all of the people of Kosovo, not just those who voted for them. But it is ingenuous to expect such a mature attitude in an extremely polarized setting. To a large extent, the political immaturity of Kosovo’s Serbs is mirrored by the unreadiness of the Albanians to accommodate the needs of minorities, especially when those minorities have so effectively marginalized themselves. With only a few prominent exceptions, such as Surroi, most Albanians aren’t spending time asking the Serbs to participate.

Simon Haselock’s glass is half full, and Veton Surroi’s is half empty. It remains to be seen whether Kosovo’s latest exercise in democratization is anything more than window dressing. Ultimately, true democratization will have to come from below, rather than from the guidance of the international community. Currently, while there is a thriving NGO movement among the Albanians, there are only poor prospects for the development of an independent grassroots movement among the perplexed Serb population.

With no elections scheduled for two years, international officials can do two things to help democracy grow in Kosovo. They must encourage the few Serb leaders who are willing to ignore the demagogues and participate in Kosovo’s own political processes. And they must nurture—rather than ignore, as they have done in the past—grassroots Albanian activists who are more than capable of promoting civil society.

Peter Lippman, a native of Seattle, Washington, is a staff writer for the Advocacy Project (, an association that supports advocates in countries of crisis or in transition.