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I’ve just arrived in Baghdad and am waiting in the Green Zone for a flight to my unit elsewhere in the city.

Traveling to and around Iraq is a horrendous pain in the ass, but flying over Baghdad in a Blackhawk helicopter is always a treat. Below are some photos from my flight in today.

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On My Way to Baghdad

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My request to embed with the U.S. Army in Baghdad has been approved, and it turns out that I need to leave a bit earlier than I expected. It will take a while before I actually get there — I need to be in Kuwait four days in advance for paperwork and “processing,” and I’m going to stop in New York City for two days on the way to Kuwait. But I’ll be there soon enough and will have a large batch of fresh dispatches for you about what is hopefully the end of the war.

I haven’t spent any quality time in Baghdad for over a year. The first time I visited Iraq’s capital was shortly after General David Petraeus unleashed his surge of counterinsurgency forces. It was impossible to determine whether or not he would succeed at the time. Sometimes the surge seemed “a smashing success”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/07/in-the-wake-of-the-surge.php in the making. Other times Iraq looked “despairingly broken beyond repair”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/08/the-future-of-iraq.php. The country was still so “mind-bogglingly dysfunctional”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/08/an-iraqi-interpreters-story.php it was sometimes hard for me to believe it was real.

A year ago I went to Fallujah and had to spend a day in Baghdad’s Green Zone filling out paperwork to get myself credentialed. While waiting to be processed I sat outside on the lawn next to the Iraqi parliament building and listened to a 45-minute fire fight just on the other side of the wall in the Red Zone. The BRRRRRAP of automatic AK-47 fire was punctuated by the sound of explosions. Police car sirens wailed, and I remember feeling relieved that at least the Iraqi Police were rushing toward, instead of away from, the fight. I remember hearing a car bomb explode two miles away. It sounded like it exploded mere blocks away. Baghdad in 2007 was still not a place you would want to be.

I’m told the city will be unrecognizable to me now. I know this is true. It is beyond controversy at this point that the war has wound down. But I still have a slightly difficult time believing it on a gut level. News reports from Iraq have been so few and far between lately that I can’t help but picture the old Baghdad in my mind. My experience hasn’t yet caught up with reality. This trip will remedy that.

So stay tuned for an in-depth tour through Baghdad after the surge. I will learn as much from this adventure as you will. The United States will have a new president soon, and a new Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. Will Iraq and its government survive the next phase? I do not know, and I probably still won’t know by the time I get back. But I’ll do the best I can to figure out where we are at the end of 2008.

I leave in 24 hours.

And I need your help so I can purchase airfare and combat zone insurance. Food and lodging are thankfully free in Iraq as long as I’m with the Army, but I still need to spend some money to get there and to keep myself insured just in case. Please consider a contribution and help make independent writing economically viable.

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PJTV Interview

Sorry I’ve been away from the site since the election. My wife and I spent a few days in Southern California visiting family. I’m back now.

While I’m settling back in, “you can watch Roger L. Simon interview me for Pajamas TV”:http://www.pjtv.com/?cmd=video&video-id=737&video-title=National_Security_Report_Preview_Nov._6th&series-name=PJTV_Daily_ if you’re a subscriber.

Election Night

I voted, as always, and if you’re an American, I hope you did, too. I’m going to an election party tonight with a politically mixed crowd of my closest friends. We are not going to yell at each other about politics, not even tonight. That’s just not something we do.

This is a foreign correspondence blog, and I don’t want to get bogged down in polarizing domestic American politics, at least not on the front page. But this election is important, so I’m starting an open thread in the comments.

Who did you vote, and why?

If you do leave a comment, please be nice to those who voted a different way than you did. And remember to feel relieved that we have peaceful transitions of power in this country. In some of the countries I visit and report from, that isn’t always the case. Politics elsewhere is sometimes a question of who lives and who dies.

Killing a Crocodile

Last week the United States military “conducted a raid inside Syria”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6eea3c6a-a44f-11dd-8104-000077b07658.html and killed Al Qaeda leader Abu Ghadiya in a shootout in the village of Sukariyeh. Syria’s government raged against the violation of its sovereignty and staged “a massive anti-American protest”:http://www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/31/world/middleeast/31syria.html&OQ=_rQ3D2Q26scpQ3D1Q26sqQ3DdamascusQ26stQ3DcseQ26orefQ3Dslogin&OP=60203e2eQ2FQ25EjkQ25X0GQ7De00rQ7CQ25Q7CuuNQ25Q2BuQ25CQ2BQ25E0exXQ25qDXXxjjWQ7DrQ25CQ2BQ7DweDW4hrqx in downtown Damascus. But, according to the Times of London, the Syrian government itself may have “quietly green-lighted the raid in advance”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article5062848.ece.

No one should be surprised if that turns out to be true. It makes perfect sense.

“Syria’s interest is to see the invaders defeated in Iraq,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said in 2003. And so, for years, Bashar Assad’s government supported the flow of Al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq. The reason should be apparent enough. Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and does not want to be “next.” The last thing either the Syrian or Iranian governments have wanted to see was a quick, easy, successful, and locally welcomed regime change in Iraq. The Iraqi insurgency was their life-insurance policy. It kept American troops busy somewhere else and hollowed out any potential American appetite for the demolition of another belligerent dictatorship in the Middle East.

Assad’s support for Al Qaeda is mostly cynical, though. He hardly shares the group’s ultimate goals. Another reason he helps them make their way to Iraq is because, in all likelihood, he’s delighted to watch them impale themselves on American forces.

Syria’s ruling Baath Party is a secular nationalist regime made up overwhelmingly of minority Alawites, whom the likes of Al Qaeda would like to see murdered en masse. Alawites are one of the Middle East’s relatively obscure religious minorities–like the Arabic Druze and the Kurdish Yezidis–who exist well outside the theological mainstream of the region. They’re a secretive and heretical offshoot of Twelver Shiism, and their beliefs are fused with Christian and pagan elements. Some of their rituals resemble those of the indigenous and ancient Phoenicians. They drink wine in a rite that resembles communion. They believe women do not have souls. Unlike Christians and Muslims, Alawites do not proselytize. Outsiders are not even allowed to convert. They make up around ten percent of Syria’s population, and can only rule the country through the brute force of an oppressive police state.

They aren’t at all well-liked by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, which considers them “infidels.” Stirring up sectarian tensions is, not surprisingly, a serious crime inside Syria. The last thing Assad wants is Lebanonization or Iraqification inside his own country. Those kinds of political problems are strictly for export.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/killing-a-crocodile-13279.

Lebanon’s Enemy Within

Israel is floating the idea of “a non-aggression pact with Lebanon”:http://dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=2&article_id=96967. It isn’t at all likely to work. The odds are minuscule that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah will go along. But Lebanon will hold an election in a couple of months, and the offer of a non-aggression pact should play well with Lebanese voters who are uncomfortable with or hostile toward Hezbollah’s vision of perpetual war with the “Zionist entity.”

Negotiating with implacable and inflexible enemies is foolish. No sensible person suggests that the United States negotiate with Al Qaeda, for instance. Peace talks with Damascus won’t get Israelis anywhere either. Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad needs a state of cold war with Israel to justify the oppressive policies against his country’s own citizens, and bad-faith negotiations yield him some measure of international legitimacy he doesn’t deserve.

Hezbollah is “moderate” compared with the worst jihadist groups out there, but it simply cannot survive in its current form if it isn’t engaged in at least a low level of conflict. Almost every militia in Lebanon relinquished most, if not all, of its weapons at the end of the civil war in 1990. Hezbollah’s rationale for refusing is that its fighters are the only ones in the country willing and able to prevent another Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Without the perceived threat of another Israeli invasion, the justification for Hezbollah’s very existence collapses.

Israelis would therefore be naïve in the extreme if they tried to establish a pact with Hezbollah itself, or a pact with Beirut that required Hezbollah’s cooperation. Hezbollah doesn’t stick to agreements and is less trustworthy than even Yasser Arafat turned out to be, when the Oslo peace process fell apart with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. “Hezbollah doesn’t even pretend to want peace”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/967830.html and will almost certainly gin up another shooting war on the border. “See?” Hezbollah will say to fellow Lebanese after violently provoking the Israelis to cross the border again. “We told you. You need us.”

The successful negotiation of a genuine non-aggression pact that every party in Lebanon would adhere to is not going to happen any time soon. Just listen to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora: “Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel.” He may be right, but not for the reason some people might think.Eli Khoury, Lebanese political consultant and founder of the excellent online magazine “NOW Lebanon”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/, “explained it to me this way last year”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001380.html: “The last Arab country,” he said. “This is the statement of those who want to make peace but know that they can’t. They don’t want to get ganged up on by the Arabs. We are the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world.”

Lebanon probably really is the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world. It is certainly the most liberal, democratic, and cosmopolitan of the Arabic countries — at least the non-Hezbollah parts of Lebanon are. It is by far the most demographically diverse; roughly a third of its people are Christians, another third are Sunnis, and most of the rest are Shias. Iraq is the only Arab-majority country that can compete with Lebanon when it comes to ideological breadth. There are more opinions there than people, and more political movements and parties than even most Lebanese themselves can keep track of.

If you look at Lebanon’s population outside the Hezbollah bloc — the majority of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze — you will mostly find people who are nowhere near hostile enough to Israel to be a serious threat. The Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces have had an unofficial non-aggression pact in place for decades. The Lebanese government does not and will not pick fights with Israel. Most Lebanese have negative opinions of Israel, but that doesn’t mean they’re interested in going to war. As a whole, they are much more hostile than, say, Europeans, but they’re a lot less hostile as a whole than Palestinians.

Most were furious at Hezbollah for starting the last war in July, 2006, and they didn’t get around to (grudgingly and temporarily) supporting Hezbollah until they felt Israel over-reacted by bombing Lebanese targets outside Hezbollah’s strongholds. Some even supported Israel’s initial counterattack–at least before the air force bombed Beirut’s international airport. A huge number of Lebanese Christians were Israel’s allies during the civil war, and even a large number of Shias from South Lebanon volunteered to fight Hezbollah and joined the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army until the year 2000. “Last time I visited Lebanon with my colleague Noah Pollak”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001359.html, I found, for the first time, billboards and signs with messages like “Wage Peace” and “No War” throughout the country in regions Hezbollah doesn’t control. As soon as the 2006 war ended, the Lebanese government pushed back hard against Hezbollah and refused to back down until Hezbollah mounted an armed offensive against the capital in May 2008.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/lebanon-s-enemy-within-13216.

So Much for Azerbaijani Democracy

Last week Azerbaijan conducted “another rigged election”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/world/asia/16azeri.html?_r=2&ref=world&oref=login&oref=slogin just a few short months after several government officials “said to my face”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/10/the-forgotten-w.php that this time things would be different.

Advisors to President Ilham Aliyev insisted that observers from the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would fan out all over the country to monitor the election and even stop the process entirely if they detected fraudulent activity. All this was confirmed by the Israeli ambassador. Yet Aliyev was just “re-elected” with 89 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the opposition.

Aliyev’s opponents say it was impossible for them to compete, which sounds about right. “The choice of candidates was skimpy,” Sabrina Tavernise “wrote last week”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/world/asia/16azeri.html?_r=2&ref=world&oref=login&oref=slogin in the New York Times. “There were six, aside from Mr. Aliyev, but they were political nobodies, and few voters interviewed in Baku on Wednesday could identify any of them.” Imagine how free and fair our own presidential election would be if only Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain had name recognition.

It’s no wonder the president’s political opponents are almost completely invisible. Azerbaijan’s television stations are controlled by his government. Eight journalists were arrested for “libel” in the past year. Three are still in jail. Several citizens told me privately that they’re afraid to say anything critical of the government in public. It may make little difference if European election observers ensure ballots are processed and counted fairly in this kind of environment, but the OSCE and the U.S. State Department “did see some improvement”:http://www.voanews.com/english/2008-10-16-voa53.cfm compared with the last election.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/39341.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden apparently didn’t know reporters were in the room when he said “this”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/39261 at a fundraiser in Seattle.

It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking…Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate… And he’s gonna need help. And the kind of help he’s gonna need is, he’s gonna need you – not financially to help him – we’re gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right.

Discuss.

A Compromise Solution

A few days ago I asked all you readers how I should spend my working hours during the next month before I return to Baghdad. The quandary was this: should I write and publish my remaining two dispatches from the Balkans, or spend a full month working on my book From Beirut to Baghdad? I have only written one chapter so far, and there will be nine or ten in the end.

A small majority voted for me to work on the book, and a large minority want the two dispatches. So I’m going to compromise and write and publish one of the dispatches. I’ll spend the rest of my time, as much as I can anyway, on the book.

I’ll still publish this and that on the blog, I’m just going to slow down on the epic-length feature articles for a few weeks. The book needs to be written, and I have to find the time somewhere. If only I could put off sleep for a month.

By December, though, I should have a large fresh batch of pieces from Baghdad. I haven’t been there in over a year. Everything I remember is now out of date. It should be very interesting indeed when I return and take a fresh look after the surge.

Sending Iran’s Regrets

Senator Barack Obama hopes to be the first American president to engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He even says he’s willing to meet with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Surely he must understand that what he’s proposing is a radical departure from foreign policy as practiced by both parties. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t meet with Adolf Hitler or Emperor Hirohito, Harry Truman didn’t meet with Kim Il Sung, Ronald Reagan didn’t meet with any Soviet leader until after glasnost and perestroika were in place, Bill Clinton didn’t meet with Saddam Hussein or Iran’s Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and no American president met with Fidel Castro.

In any case, whether Obama’s wish to engage Ahmadinejad is mainstream or radical, and whether it’s foolish or wise, may not even matter. It isn’t likely to happen. Obama may not care about preconditions, but the Iranian governmentcertainly does. Mehdi Kalhor, Iran’s Vice President for Media Affairs, told the Islamic Republic News Agency that “as long as U.S. forces have not left the Middle East region and continues its support for the Zionist regime, talks between Iran and U.S. is off the agenda.”

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/sending-iran-s-regrets-13179.

A Serious Question

Some of you have signed up for recurring donations to help me pay for the dispatches I publish on this Web site. I’m working for you, and I need to consult you about something. I’m going back to Baghdad in a month or so and I need to figure out the best way to spend my working hours between now and then.

There are still a few dispatches that I haven’t yet written from my recent trip to the Balkans. I went to the Balkans because I’ve been personally interested in the region for a long time and because I needed a break from the Middle East, but reader interest in the region seems to be lower than mine. I could write those remaining dispatches from Kosovo and publish them even though they’re a bit less exciting than those from a place like Baghdad or Russian-occupied Georgia.

Alternately, I could spend the next month working on the book I’ve finally started to write. The working title is From Beirut to Baghdad, and it’s a first-person narrative eye-witness account of revolution, terrorism, and war in Lebanon and Iraq. I don’t have a publisher yet, but I do have an agent, and the book will be written and published one way or another — even if I have to self-publish it. So far I have finished one chapter out of ten. If I spent the next month working almost exclusively on the book, I can easily finish two or three more chapters.

So: how would you rather me spend my time during the next month? Should I put my nose to the grindstone and finish as much of the book as possible? Or should I write my remaining dispatches at the same time and make some, but less, progress on the book? The book won’t be finished until late spring at the earliest, so I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I can finish it before Thanksgiving if I take the month “off.”

If I do take the month “off” to work on the book, I’ll still put content on this Web site. The blog won’t go dark. I just won’t have any epic length dispatches to publish until December or so.

Let me know. I work for you and will do what you prefer.

How should I spend the next month?
Publish your remaining dispatches and make a modest amount of progress on your book.
Set the dispatches aside and make a massive amount of progress on your book as long as you don’t neglect the blog entirely.
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Resisting the United Nations

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There is no love for the United Nations in Kosovo.

Kosovo is the fourth country I’ve visited where the UN has or has had a key role, and in only one of them — Lebanon — is the UN not despised by just about everyone. In Lebanon the UN has so little power to make a difference one way or the other that any anger at the institution would largely be pointless. In Bosnia, though, UN “peacekeepers” stood by impotently while genocide and ethnic-cleansing campaigns were carried out right in front of them. The UN’s Oil for Food program was thoroughly corrupted by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq at the expense of just about everybody who lives there. Kosovo, meanwhile, declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, but the elected government is still subordinate to the almost universally despised UN bureaucrats who are the real power. Many Kosovars insist the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is actually a dictatorship.

Vetevendosje — “self-determination” in Albanian — was formed as a non-violent civil resistance movement against UN rule in a country that is supposed to be sovereign. Recently the European Union, which announced its own mission in Kosovo without being invited, was added to the list of opponents, but the UN remains the primary target. I attended one of Vetevendosje’s rallies as an observer which began as a long march through the streets of Kosovo’s capital Prishtina and ended at the United Nations headquarters where activists dumped a truckload of garbage inside the gate and hosed down the walls of the compound with sewage.

I spoke to Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti and activist Alex Channer in their office the day before the rally in Prishtina’s bohemian Pejton neighborhood.

“So basically you are opposing the UN rule here, and the EU,” I said.

“Yes,” Kurti said, “because they are going to be installed here from above without having the previous consent of the people.”

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Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti

“There was no referendum?” I said.

“No,” he said. “No referendum for their installment here, and also no referendum for the UN mission. And they are going to be above the law which they will by applying on us. Ironically the EU-elects will deal with the rule of law and will have the rule of law as their priority, but they themselves will be above the law.”

“Who decided that they are going to come in here?” I said.

“It was Martti Ahtisaari’s plan, this Finnish diplomat who mediated between Prishtina and [Serbia's capital] Belgrade, he together with Javier Solana. Solana is in charge of security and Foreign Policy of the EU. They prepared a draft back in July of the year 2006, and that was included in a more detailed form by Ahtisaari in his proposal.”

“And Serbia agreed to this?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Serbia did not. But the Albanian politicians did. They don’t ask because then they would have to ask again later on, and then we could change our mind. It is a mission that would be totally unaccountable to us. There is no watch dog, and in this civilian group that is going to supervise us, the ICO, the International Civilian Office, has this Peter Feith, he is there as well. So basically he is going to watch himself.”

“So should I assume that if Kosovo is invited to join the EU the way the other countries have, you would say no?” I said.

“We wouldn’t say no,” he said. “We want Kosovo to be included in the EU because we are part of European soil. But as things stand now, they wouldn’t ask us at all, they would have to ask themselves because this is the EU mission. Even so, UNMIK is still here.”

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Young Albanian activists in support of Vetevendosje

UNMIK is the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. It has been the de-facto government of Kosovo since the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade lost control at the end of the 1999 war. Kosovo has its own nominal government, but it has little power.

“So you have UN rule,” Kurti continued, “which is not leaving, and you have the ICO and EU-elects about to come. They are doubling the bureaucracy here. And we are stuck because we depend on their consensus. That means we depend on their lowest common denominator. What they care about is stability, never development or progress. For them, a crisis is only an explosion of crisis. If there is huge unemployment, poverty, they don’t care.”

“So if the EU is administering Kosovo’s government,” I said, “what does that mean for Kosovo’s government? Will they be subordinate to the EU or operating in parallel?”

“They will be subordinate,” he said, “because Peter Feith will have the right to sack our ministers and change our laws. So he is going to supervise the government. Peter Feith hopes he will not be challenged to use his powers where he can simply dismantle the parliament, call new elections, change a certain minister, or say this law is not good after it has been passed in our assembly. They are hoping for self-censorship from our government in order not to be challenged and not to use those powers which would unmask them as the dictatorship they really are. It is a dictatorship, but they do not want to be seen as one, so they say we are here only to supervise. They talk a lot with our prime minister and ministers, do this, do that, in order not to be seen in the background as a sort of monarchy.”

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“What is their reason for wanting to do this?” I said.

“They mediate between Prishtina and Belgrade after overthrowing Milosevic,” he said, “and they simply don’t use any more sticks, only carrots. Serbia is very aggressive, and in order to make sure that Serbia is not going to be indignant, they say Yes, Kosovo is independent, but don’t worry, it is us there. That is one reason I think they are here.

“Second,” he continued, “every bureaucracy seeks self perpetuation. A lot of people here have very high salaries, and they are like big fishes in a small pond. And they are more or less all of them into this process of privatization. Because we cannot touch them legally, they have free hands to do whatever they want. Many of them got very rich. 80 percent of the money from the international community that was poured onto Kosovo in these nine years went for technical assistance, seminars, conferences, and so on. A lot of money is in their hands this way. They direct it. It’s an authoritarian law. So I think this is another reason why they’re here.”

“Does the US have any position on this,” I said, “or has is been decided only by Europe?”

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Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti interviewed at a rally

“Well,” he said, “the US recognized Kosovo as an independent sovereign country, but here you have a foreign office, and I don’t think this American office is really in line with the policy of Washington. It is another small king here, and I feel that it is not that different from the European perspective because the focus has been shifted elsewhere. The US focus was here during NATO intervention and so on, but later on somehow, especially after 9/11, the focus is elsewhere, and I don’t think George W. Bush and the State Department know very well what goes on here. I think in Kosovo all of their diplomats over time don’t get better, but worse, because they see that they can be very powerful here. They have no one to balance them. Our government is very submissive, obedient, and weak. On the other hand I think there is a great deal of interest to buy into the economy of Kosovo, with its assets and resources because they have no real constraints here. We have been defined as a special case, which means they can experiment, and everything is going to be fine. It’s heaven on earth for these kinds of diplomats.”

“What kinds of things have the EU and the UN done here that are bad, specifically?” I said. “I get your general point, but what are the practical results of all this?”

“No economic development at all,” he said. “Zero. No factories. No industry. Nothing. The fiscal policy is terrible. They promised us a market economy, and we ended up in a market without an economy. Then there is the internal division of Kosovo. The North is divided from the rest. The red is Serb areas, and here are new municipalities about to be created by Ahtisaari’s plan where the soft partition is strengthening itself.”

Kosovo Wall Map Vetevendosje.jpg

Vetevendosje’s Kosovo map. Serb enclaves are in red.

Kurti had a rough map of Kosovo on the wall behind the table we sat around. The Serb areas are shown in red, as Kurti said. The northern Serb areas are adjacent to Serbia.

“UNMIK has tolerated this,” he continued. “Now UNMIK is tolerating the elections of Serbia, so in a way UNMIK is tolerating Serbia’s intrusion and Serbian obstruction in Kosovo.”

Serbia held elections inside the Serb enclaves of Kosovo. These Kosovar Serbs did not elect representatives to send to Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. They elected representatives to send to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, which is now, whether they like it or not, a foreign country. To get a handle on how strange this is, imagine if American citizens of Mexican descent in the formerly Mexican Southwestern United States voted for candidates to represent them in Mexico City.

“Why don’t the EU and UN say no to Serbia?” I said. “Is it because they are trying to lure Serbia into the EU, or is it because they are afraid of more fighting?”

“I think they know very well that Serbia has not really been punished for the wars,” he said. “Serbian police and army forces killed around 200,000 non-Serbs. If one person killed 5 people, you have 40,000 serial murderers walking around inside Serbia. They are in the power structure, in the political parties, in the police, in the army. I think they are afraid of that. Instead of dealing with the principle of justice in Serbia, they are just playing this game of markets, who makes more pressure, who is more powerful, it is absolute real politics, and I think they care only for really short term stability. They don’t think any further than that. And they deal only with emergency situations. They don’t really see how structural is the cause of the conflict here. When they think about the security issue, stability, these are the words they use. Not freedom, liberty, development, and so on. They think in terms of troops they have and politicians they control, rather than in terms of the well being and situations of the ordinary citizens.”

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The biggest problem with the UN and EU missions in Kosovo, as many locals see it, is that there is no proper government that is actually in charge of the country. There is no fully sovereign entity in Kosovo. The country’s sovereignty is parceled out piece by piece to different bureaucracies.

“Of the things UNMIK did wrong here, and the most damaging for Kosovo, was two-fold,” Kurti said. “Apart from UNMIK’s very existence, and now the EU’s mission, it creates this duality of institutions. And this duality makes vague the address of who is responsible for the people. So currently a Kosovo citizen, like myself, is not able to know who is responsible for a bad social position, for example, or a lack of money. If you ask UNMIK they say it’s your institution, if you ask our government they say Oh, it’s UNMIK. This duality makes no institutions be or feel responsible for anything that happened or did not happen in Kosovo. And secondly, when UNMIK was installed here, they took in their hands all the mechanisms for controlling the states. They control the police and all the judicial systems as well, and they tolerated corruption, and they blame us for being a corrupt society. It was they who should have acted against corruption because they have the mechanisms in their hands. I as a citizen have no mechanisms to control the government. In normal democratic countries, as a citizen you are able to punish your leaders for not defending your interests. Here we don’t have that mechanism.”

“Does the EU and UNMIK have a base of support here?” I said to Kurti.

“The popularity of UNMIK is bad,” he said. “But people link UNMIK with NATO intervention which is another issue. And they think okay, it is like an extended intervention of the world. NATO intervention saved us from Serbia, and now it is UNMIK. When people think of this they think of the first year of UNMIK, the reconstruction of buildings and houses, the emergency phase.”

“Was UNMIK better then?” I said.

“That was better,” he said, “but also due to circumstances. Now the vast majority of people think very poorly of UNMIK. If you talk to a person from Kosovo about UNMIK they might say it is not that bad, but if you drink a beer with that person they will tell you what he really thinks.”

I didn’t have to drink beer with Kosovars to hear uniformly and relentlessly negative opinions of the United Nations. I didn’t meet a single person who approves of the performance of the UN. Anti-UN and anti-EU graffiti is common, and it sharply contrasts with the pro-American graffiti that is almost as common.

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All the graffiti I saw about the UN and the EU was negative. All the graffiti I saw about the US was positive, without exceptions.

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This graffiti appears on nearly every street in the capital opposing the EU Mission in Kosovo (MIK) and the imposed EU law (LEX).

Still, not everyone in Kosovo agrees with the folks at Vetevendosje about the European Union. Some are glad the European Union is stepping in.

“Part of our problem is we have no respect for the law,” said one Albanian man. “We haven’t had laws worth respecting. We need European law here.” For more than a half-century, laws were imposed on Kosovars first by communists, then by Milosevic’s nationalist-socialists, and finally by unaccountable international bureaucrats with no base of support. At least EU bureaucrats exclusively hail from competent Western democracies.

The same man later criticized Vetevendosje. “They make good points,” he said, “but they don’t do much else. They criticize, but they don’t have any positive suggestions for what we should do instead.”

The activists at Vetevendosje are honest, though, about the fact that not everyone agrees with them about the EU.

“Sometimes you hear the argument about the EU mission that you don’t hear about UNMIK,” Alex Channer said. “You hear You know, we need them because our politicians are so corrupt we can’t trust them, and the Europeans are somehow better than UNMIK.”

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Vetevendosje activist Alex Channer

“UNMIK is not leaving because Resolution 1244,” Kurti said, “which established UNMIK here, is still in place, and it couldn’t be changed due to obstruction from Russia.”

“Why did Russia obstruct?” I said.

“Because Russia is with Serbia, and Serbia wants the UN to stay,” he said. “They like the UN very much.”

“So neither Serbia nor Kosovo want the EU here?” I said. “You are in agreement on that at least?”

Kurti and Channer laughed darkly.

“Serbia wants Kosovo,” Kurti said.

“So they want as few obstacles as possible,” I said.

“Right,” he said. “but in order to make it worse here. We are contesting it in order to make it better. They want to send us back into the 1990s.”

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Kosovo citizens at Vetevendosje’s rally against the United Nations

“Because both the EU and the UN are divided about Kosovo’s status,” Channer said, “some states have recognized it, some states haven’t, that means these two themselves are divided inside Kosovo. They are divided outside in the orders they are getting for what to do. So what this means is you will only ever get the lowest common denominator. If they ever do get to a consensus what to do, they will just be treading water.”

“The main reason we oppose these kind of missions is because of the principle that we oppose being ruled by a foreign institution or mission,” Kurti said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are from the EU or the UN, the US, or Great Britain. Kosovo needs to govern itself. That is what we fight for. The international community can help Kosovo through missions, and I think Kosovo needs help from them, but it should be in the form of assistance and advisory boards, not rule. Currently what has happened with UNMIK, and what is going to happen with the EU law, is direct rule over Kosovo and direct control over Kosovo’s political and social and economic life. That has not produced any good results, and is not going to produce any good results in the future”

“The government of Iraq has more sovereignty than you do,” I said.

That shocked them. Iraq is in vastly worse shape overall than Kosovo. And yet Iraq regained much more of its sovereignty in a shorter amount of time, even while fending off a ferocious insurgency and civil war.

“Do you have any kind of strategy to work against this?” I said. “Is there anything you can do?”

“Prevent the implementation of Ahtisaari’s plan on the ground,” he said. “Because this plan includes total ethnic decentralization. Ethnic decentralization will turn Kosovo into another Bosnia. Condoleeza Rice, three or four months ago, said that Bosnia is a failed state. It is dysfunctional twelve years after the Dayton Accords [which ended the war]. If you divide people according to their ethnicity, they will remain divided. UNMIK has always said amongst its declarations and press releases that they want a united Kosovo multi-ethnic society. But they always started from ethnicity. Albanians, Serbs, Turks, let’s unite them, but first let’s label them with their ethnicity. So they actually strengthen it. They don’t look at you as a student if you’re a student, or as a professor, or a housewife, or whatever, they have these ethnic lenses, and it is impossible to build multiethnicity if you start from what is different among people.”

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Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti

“I’m not saying that UNMIK should leave tonight,” he continued, “but let’s have a timetable. In one month’s time, two month’s time, they should bit by bit depart from Kosovo.”

“Do they have any intention of slowly phasing out or are they just saying We’re here and we will stay until we feel like leaving?” I said.

“They have no deadline,” he said. “They say We are an interim mission, provisional, but this provisional has no deadline. No time limit. And actually it is they who extend the duration of the mission, always. It is no one else deciding but them. We know they will be staying here at least two years. They have a minimum for their stay here, but no maximum. And the majority of them are not good experts back home.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s more of a mess than I expected.”

“Maybe I should add another reason why I think the EU is taking over,” he said. “The EU, or at least some of the people in Brussels, see themselves as a rising empire. The US is an empire, and you have three more empires — China, Russia, and the EU. Maybe in the future India and Brazil, but let’s leave that for now. If you are a rising empire, you must prove that you can manage a crisis outside yourself. So they send them in Darfur, they send them in Bosnia, they are now going to land with a parachute in Kosovo.”

*

I wanted some different opinions. Albin Kurti and Alex Channer are activists. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I knew already that at least some local people are in favor of the European Union mission even if they don’t like the United Nations.

I didn’t actually meet any Kosovar Albanians who had anything nice to say about the United Nations, but it’s possible that everyone is wrong and overreacting. So I asked some American soldiers based at Camp Bondsteel in Eastern Kosovo what they thought about the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

“The people here want them to leave,” Captain Joseph Christenson said.

“Yes,” I said. “I know about that. But what is your opinion of UNMIK?”

No American soldier felt comfortable answering that. US military personnel rarely discuss politics on the record, and that’s probably for the best. So they artfully dodged the question without fully dodging it.

“Do you remember the guy who came in and talked to us about UNMIK and why the citizens don’t like them very much?” said Specialist Yaw to Captain Christenson.

“Yes,” Captain Christenson said. “What citizens have told us is that part of the reason they don’t like them is that UNMIK has people in leadership positions who come from countries that are worse off than Kosovo.”

“I guess what I’m really asking,” I said, “is are the locals right?

“I know a lot of people are excited for the EU to come,” Lieutenant Meyer said.

I’ll let you read between the lines of that conversation.

I heard a complaint similar to the one Captain Christenson described from entrepreneur Luan Berisha.

“I was going to go to Macedonia,” he told me, “and a UN guy from Ghana on the border asks for papers. I gave him random papers that weren’t documents, just to joke with him, and he said Thank you sir, good day, you can go. I said give me your supervisor. So a guy from Germany comes up and says can I see your papers. I said those are my papers in your hand. He said These papers are nothing! I said I know, and this guy was going to let me go through with just a ‘good day!’ The German guy went crazy. When you send a mission to a troubled country, you have to send people who are educated, who will create the rule of law. But to send idiots — I swear to God, I was so mad. They came from Africa and got their drivers licenses in Kosovo. There were several kids who were killed by these guys crashing into them. Nobody cares. The UN is mad.”

“Would you accept being part of the EU?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “Everybody would. If there was a referendum everybody would vote for it.”

Even the activists at Vetevendosje want to join the European Union. They just want European Union laws implemented democratically. They don’t want an EU dictatorship.

The day after I met Kurti and Channer, thousands of Vetevendosje activists marched through the streets from the Pejton neighborhood to the United Nations headquarters downtown.

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Three Vetevendosje rally organizers

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Vetevendosje fills the streets of Prishtina

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Vetevendosje activists

Several leaders delivered thunderous speeches from the tops of trucks as citizens rallied around.

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The rally had a destination and purpose. Hundreds of bags of garbage filled with the usual urban refuse — discarded paper towels, empty potato chip bags, banana peels, candy wrappers, aluminum cans, crumpled cigarette packages, etc. — were loaded into a truck. That truck was driven to the gate of the UN headquarters and parked facing away from it. A surging crowd gathered around the truck. Volunteers donned face masks and rubber gloves and prepared to hurl the bags of garbage over the front gate and into the compound.

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The crowd gathers around the garbage truck at the gate to the United Nations headquarters

UN policemen guarded the gate itself. There wasn’t much they could do to prevent demonstrators from throwing trash into the compound, but they weren’t going to let anyone into the compound themselves.

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UN policemen protect the UN’s headquarters in Prishtina

The crowd roared its approval when the truck’s tailgate was lowered and bags of trash were exposed for the UN policemen to see.

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Vetvendosje’s masked garbage hurlers faced down the police. Everyone seemed tense on each side, but violence was not in the air. This wasn’t a riot. It was theater. Vetevendosje activists were genuinely angry at the corrupt and incompetent officials, and the UN police were angry at the rabble-rousing civilians, but they weren’t at war.

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Near-bursting bags of garbage were efficiently unloaded from the truck bed and handed from person to person until they reached the hands of activists standing ready at the gate. When the garbage started flying, it really flew — at least a dozen bags of trash were hurled into the air every second. Some of the bags landed with sickening splats. The smell of rotting refuse was horrendous.

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The activists brought out a tank of sewer water with a hose attached. God only knows where they got it, but they got it. Then a masked and gloved activist sprayed reeking raw sewage onto the outer walls of the UN headquarters building. The police watched stoically and did not interfere.

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Albin Kurti explained himself and his movement to United Nations officials in a written statement a few days after the rally. “For a long time you have been truly creating trash,” he wrote. “This time you are stinking.”

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Coming Soon

Russia’s invasion of Georgia disrupted my summer and fall schedule, so some of my dispatches are appearing a bit out of order. I still have three remaining from the Balkans. One is about my brief embed with the U.S. Army in Kosovo. Another is about the fate of Jews in the Albanian regions during the Holocaust. The first, which should be published later tonight, is about local resistance to the United Nations.

After these three are published, I’m going back to Iraq.

Stay tuned. The next dispatch is just about ready.

A Free Georgia Can Only Be Democratic

by Michael Cecire

Editor’s note: I recently returned from a trip to Georgia where my reporting was necessarily focused on the Russian invasion. Russia’s occupation and de-facto annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, aren’t the only serious problems the country faces right now. The following guest column by Michael Cecire, whose knowledge of and experience in Georgia are much more extensive than mine, should fill in some of the rest of the story. — MJT

On September 15, speaking in a press conference in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, Secretary General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer voiced NATO’s support for Georgia, a recent victim of Russian militarism, while urging the nascent democracy to push forward with reforms. Scheffer’s suggestion could not have come at a better time. For while Georgia’s war wounds still fester, its government is rapidly approaching a crisis of legitimacy.

In November of 2007, large-scale opposition protests broke out in the streets. Demonstrators demanded President Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili’s resignation. The government responded by forcibly dispersing the protesters and shutting down the independent television station Imedi, effectively monopolizing state control over the country’s television media. Snap elections were called in January. The opposition, passionate but fractious and incoherent, lost to Saakashvili’s ruling National Movement. Although significant evidence exists that Saakashvili’s victory could be at least partially attributed to a blurring of state and party apparatuses, the election was eventually deemed reasonably free and fair.

Still, the November events stood in stark contrast to Saakashvili’s own meteoric rise through people-power protests against the corrupt administration of Eduard Shevardnadze, an old USSR party apparatchik. Despite gradual democratic and economic improvements since Saakashvili’s 2003 Rose Revolution, the November repressions marked a sharp reversal in Georgia’s upward trajectory. Freedom House revised down Georgia’s political rights and civil liberties scores a full point each.

Since then, there has been no evidence that Saakashvili’s government intends to make real amends for its mishandling of the November protests and subsequent restrictions it placed on the opposition and independent media. The courts and commissions continue to be packed with National Movement operatives, the political structure continues to favor enormous presidential power, and in a bizarre Putin-esque scheme, a landowner in Borjomi was jailed for refusing to transfer property to the government. Eerily reminiscent of Russia’s Yukos affair — an apparent harbinger of Russia’s slide into authoritarianism — the landowner was coerced into withdrawing claims on his land after his family was threatened and after suffering medical complications from rough, extrajudicial imprisonment.

Georgia is not Russia — not even close. Nor does the Saakashvili government’s democratic deficit absolve the West’s shame for inaction or Russia’s blame for the recent conflict, which was only the latest chapter in a long narrative of Russian aggression. Even so, discussions of Georgia’s security, Russian revanchism, and future U.S.-Georgian relations cannot be divorced from the quality of Georgia’s own democracy, often lovingly and cynically cited by Saakashvili himself. NATO’s Secretary General was right to remind Georgia that its accession into the Alliance will largely depend on successful and sustainable democratic reforms which are desperately needed to reverse the country’s seeming plunge down a path trail blazed by none other than Vladimir Putin.

Although the opposition message has been generally inchoate, frustrations are building and patience is thinning. Sozar Subari, a Parliament-appointed public defender and outspoken critic of Saakashvili, recently issued a powerful statement decrying the autocratic tendencies of the government and its role in the August War. “The government that is locked within it,” he said, “which listens only to itself and respects only its own judgment, has lost the capacity for proper decision-making. Russia took advantage of this and has executed its long plotted perfidious plan of conquering our territories.”

Even one-time Saakashvili ally Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who once co-owned Rustavi 2 — a private television station with extremely close ties to Saakashvili and his government — denounced the creeping absolutism in Georgia. Even if the opposition is far from ready to directly challenge the National Movement in the political marketplace, cracks are forming in Saakashvili’s political monopoly. But those weaknesses must be exposed before they can be exploited, which isn’t easy in the long shadow cast by critical questions of Georgian national security.

Last Wednesday, Saakashvili announced a slate of reforms for a ‘Second Rose Revolution’ in direct response to Scheffer’s statement. Eyebrow-raising branding aside, Western observers should be unimpressed. On the whole, the reforms appear cosmetic and fail to address many of the structural democratic deficits rigged by Saakashvili himself.

Georgia does not need another Rose Revolution. Just as the color revolutions have exposed the inherent frailty of authoritarianism, the limitations of revolutions has been exposed, no matter how peaceful or well-intentioned they may be. From the fraying coalition in Ukraine and the growing weight of the Georgian state to the short-lived 2004 ‘Arab Spring’ in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, it is clear that democracy is rarely the product of revolution. It is more often conceived from political evolution.

Is Georgia capable of regaining its footing under Misha’s presidency? Possibly not. Ironically, it is Russian aggression that may well prove to have prolonged Saakashvili’s tenure. Still, American policymakers should demand Georgia live up to the stirring rhetoric Saakashvili so often employs. Pointing out Georgia’s obligations to its people is not uncourteous or poor form. Failing to do so would be a disservice to America’s commitment to democracy, the sacrifices of so many Georgians against authoritarianism, and those ‘certain inalienable rights’ that live within us all.

Michael Cecire is an economic development practitioner from Virginia working in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he currently works in urban redevelopment and researches international public policy. He is a regular contributor to the Democracy Project Web log and has his own Web log. Michael has also published articles in the London Telegraph, TCS Daily, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

Joe Biden’s Alternate Universe

In Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, Biden said the strangest and most ill-informed thing I have ever heard about Lebanon in my life. “When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.” Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.” [Emphasis added.]

What on Earth is he talking about? The United States and France may have kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon in an alternate universe, but nothing even remotely like that ever happened in this one.

Nobody — nobody — has ever kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon. Not the United States. Not France. Not Israel. And not the Lebanese. Nobody.

Joe Biden has literally no idea what he’s talking about.

It’s too bad debate moderator Gwen Ifill didn’t catch him and ask a follow up question: When did the United States and France kick Hezbollah out of Lebanon?

The answer? Never. And did Biden and Senator Barack Obama really say NATO troops should be sent into Lebanon? When did they say that? Why would they say that? They certainly didn’t say it because NATO needed to prevent Hezbollah from returning—since Hezbollah never went anywhere.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/35261.

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