It is possible to distinguish five overlapping phases in Kosovo’s post-war history that help explain the cumulative failures which have dramatically diminished hopes of ordinary Kosovars for a brighter future, seven years after their initial euphoria over self-declared independence.
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By Chris Deliso
The last few months’ flood of stories about mass emigration from Kosovo and the participation of Kosovo Albanians in Middle Eastern terrorist groups attest to a sad, but eminently predictable outcome of systemic failure on the part of the international community, complemented by a chronic tolerance of various negative influences. This cumulative failure seems to have dramatically diminished hopes of ordinary Kosovars for a brighter future, seven years after their initial euphoria over self-declared independence.
I have watched most of Kosovo’s post-war transition from up-close, over the past 12 years, and can thus offer some observations and anecdotes. I propose that we can distinguish five overlapping phases in Kosovo’s post-war history. Perhaps this model will be of use to future historians. In any case, this is how I see it as having gone down.
Phase one: Defining the Mission and (Mis)-Managing the Chaos
The first stage of Kosovo’s post-war incarnation lasted at very least throughout much of 1999. The whole initial trajectory of the UNMIK operation was defined by an ideological concern, but its evolution was defined by a volatile ground situation caused by the sudden social and political change.
UNMIK’s core identity was thus essentially reactionary; it had been borne of a highly controversial military intervention not sanctioned by the UN Security Council or international law. The NATO air campaign had involved demonstrable war crimes, like the use of cluster bombs, attacks on civilians, the dropping of depleted uranium. It was also marked by absolutely reckless political brinksmanship from the Clinton administration. This was most vividly seen in the ‘accidental’ bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, but also was attested in the Pristina Airport showdown. The latter at least left us with a quote for the ages: Gen. Mike Jackson’s classic “sir, I’m not going to start Third World War for you” comment to the over-ambitious Wesley Clark.
Thus from the start the UNMIK operation was geared up to be everything that the bombing had not been: a legal venture solidified by the UN, anchored by international law, drawing on as broad a coalition as possible, and staffed by representatives of very many countries. All of this occurred because of Western politicians’ overriding concern for their own legacies: their desire for consensus and positive publicity that would transform the whole adventure into a justifiable and necessary mission of pious international peacekeeping.
This led to the usual internal rivalries on the ground between ‘great powers,’ as well as the importing of some seriously under-qualified personnel from far and wide. They were all suddenly thrown into a complex and very tense post-conflict situation, in an area that called for deep local knowledge. Thus the UNMIK administration was ideologically reactive in its essence, dysfunctional from the start and, like any opaque bureaucracy, designed first and foremost to protect its own existence and conceal its inadequacies.
While there were of course some notable exceptions, most of those temporarily deployed had little concern for the citizens of Kosovo. The mission’s reactive nature also meant that it was designed with more of a view to the controversy that created it than to the emerging problems it would have to deal with on a daily basis.
A lot of what abetted the initial chaos and confusion of UN-led Kosovo were chronic misunderstandings over competencies, responsibilities and duties, exacerbated by the top-down management style of the highest officials. A lot of things could ‘happen’ in this situation, and they did. Nothing happens in a vacuum, after all. One cannot assess why, for example, several hundred young Albanians have joined Middle East jihadist groups since 2012 without considering that the Saudi Joint Commission had been waiting in the wings since before the war and was one of the first charities to arrive (from its well-established base in Albania), to be followed by more problematic entities still, for years to come. But there was no effort made by the international mission to diminish such negative influences until much later; the endemic ‘don’t rock the boat’ thinking of peacekeepers enjoying a vacation on lucrative temporary contracts ensured that.
Phase 2: ‘Paradise Mission’ and an Uneasy Peace
Another factor that has led to widespread Kosovar disillusionment was the conduct of the peacekeepers themselves in what some soon dubbed ‘paradise mission.’ Kosovo was reasonably safe, a country in Europe bordered by more developed and attractive societies (still today many of the internationals who work in Kosovo live in and educate their children in neighboring Macedonia). The sudden arrival of so many well-off foreigners proved a windfall for organized crime bosses, who were often the same people that had recently been paramilitary heroes, and thus the UNMIK administration had to rely on to keep things under control on a local level.
This uneasy symbiosis lasted more or less until the March 2004 riots. The international peacekeepers were truly living the dream in those early years, electricity or no electricity, phones or no phones. And the party would only get better in 2001, when the Kosovo-led war in Macedonia brought even more international staff and money into the region.
But it was obvious that on the street level there was deep resentment of lavish international lifestyles among poor locals who could only watch the party. For their part, the international UNMIK and KFOR staff were regularly rotated in and out, so as a class they had little incentive to care about the long-term outcomes or effect on local societies. When you have an entire class of people administering an area with no vested interest in improving said area, you cannot expect magnificent results.
The administration’s reliance on organized crime and former paramilitary leaders to keep the peace at a time when every attack on a vulnerable minority was classified in reports as an ‘isolated incident’ had sinister results. I made this very important interview with one of the original UNMIK Serious Crimes Unit detectives later on, in 2006; in it is described in detail how aggressive political interference from the UNMIK top brass torpedoed investigations and abetted protection of criminal and terrorist elements, by internationals who found it in their personal or national interests to tolerate the mobsters’ covert rule. UNMIK officials even collaborated in cases of corruption and especially human trafficking with their local counterparts.
This was an odd sort of symbiosis for, while the international administrators had all the decision-making power, the local militant-criminal organization could feel free to do as they liked, so long as it was in the political interests of the major Western countries, but particularly the US.
Phase 3: The Reckoning, and a Recalibration
For anyone who was there, the March 2004 riots that saw 50,000 Albanians loot, destroy and burn anything Serbian will never be forgotten. Okay, destroying churches and burning down houses in an orgy of wanton violence might be understandable, but would go to the trouble of hanging a pig, as I saw in Obilic?
The riots saw the convergence of everything that had made Kosovo’s international mission so vulnerable. The need to follow UN ‘rules of engagement’ meant that the few peacekeepers who saved lives had to defy orders to do so. Germans in Prizren claimed that they couldn’t even get out of their base.
After the riots, the simmering mistrust between the internationals and locals meant that relations would never be the same again. The event also fed increasing advocacy abroad that Kosovo needed to reach a ‘final status’ agreement, as the riots had proved the people’s frustrations were mounting. However, while the overt target of the riots had been Serbs, the real frustration, under the surface, was with the systemic flaws of the international regime.
The riots led to certain recalibrations that were beneficial to organized crime as well. Previous talk of a drawdown of forces was delayed due to the demonstrable need for peacekeepers. Most importantly, the ethnic cleansing of most Serbs south of the Ibar was accomplished, which would make the path to independence much clearer. It was only later admitted that the riots had been a well-organized operation, not a spontaneous reaction to alleged murder, and that certain Western governments had advance knowledge of the situation.
Phase 4: The Independence Drive and the Developing Legal Discourse
The third phase lasted for a couple of years and led into the next one, which was marked by legalisms – most notably, the Ahtisaari Plan for final status – and the continuing question of the role of the UN. This would increasingly reflected in the increased public discourse over the present and future applicability of Security Resolution 1244, in a gradually reduced international role. The European aspiration to run the province, led by the arrival of EULEX, added to the discourse in which questions of legality and political participation (or non-participation) of ethnic communities were intertwined.
Near the end of this period the quiet drive towards the unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 took on a key role in Western capitals. The Wikileaks cables about, say, Luxembourg show the way in which Washington was trying to organize for a seamless transition in terms of covert coordinated support from European countries about the impending declaration.
Phase 5: Euphoria and Post-Euphoria Realities
The February 2008 UDI was everything it was supposed to be: a symbolic act (for the internationals weren’t completely leaving) that elated Albanians and infuriated Serbs. In 2008 the focus was reduced clearly to Mitrovica and this would remain the general orientation of the international mission. At the same time, though it would not be apparent for some time, the gradual reduction of international participation hit the economy (and particularly, the service economies) hard.
I recently had an enlightening talk with a former official who was involved during the independence period and who made an interesting observation: that the thrust of Western diplomacy before and after the UDI was misguided: whereas they should have been building the economy, and arranging large-scale financial support, they were obsessively hunting for more and more international recognitions. As with the original enterprise, this was done to give a veneer of credibility to the arbitrary creation of a new state following an illegal military takeover and questionable international administration.
Reflecting on this, the international recognitions battle (which met with some notable success) was doomed to fail from the beginning because Russia, China and some EU states would not recognize the new country. This was known, anticipated and nevertheless disregarded, because of the overall political vision of Kosovo’s backers. Once again, however, the people of Kosovo did not see any major improvement of basic standard of living, and the promised rush of foreign investment was not visible.
This was where things got interesting. As two investigations by journalist Matt Brunwasser have revealed, Kosovo with independence officially entered the pay-to-play league; the old Clinton-era faces of the NATO campaign came scrounging around for loot; American diplomacy essentially became a private pressure lobby on local politicians, on behalf of firms that sought contracts. The most lucrative so far has been Bechtel’s $1.3 bn highway to Albania. In the latter article, Brunwasser argues that the road was unnecessarily large and that the gouging of the Kosovo budget to pay for it meant that funding for more vital concerns was just not there. This was echoed by international finance experts with awareness of the issue.
Since independence, the focus of foreign involvement in Kosovo has been political as well. The post-independence PR campaign (hey, French companies need money too) carried over for several years; it aimed to depict the country as a safe, youth-driven, future-oriented place. The Vatican started to get increasingly involved, angering local Muslims with its conversion campaigns. Gradually, keeping in line with global trends, the country’s leaders also turned heavily towards to inter-faith dialogue route, another public relations exercise in image-building that has further enriched specimens like Tony Blair.
This focus has increased in proportion to the predictable rise in jihadism since 2012 from a generation we could call Kosovo’s ISIS Millennials. All of the conditions that influenced their increasing radicalism from childhood to adulthood were part and parcel of the entire international mission itself, and how it was conducted over these 16 years.
Phase 6: Into the Future
Are we now heading into a new phase of Kosovo’s post-war existence? I would argue yes. The recent developments in politics and emerging international relationship with Kosovo indicate this clearly. But that is a story for another time.
Chris Deliso is an American journalist active in the Balkans since 2002 and director of the Balkanalysis.com website. He is co-author of the new e-book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans: Bolstering the Catholic Church in 2015 and beyond. Read a free excerpt on TransConflict here.