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.”
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.”
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.”
“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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Three Vetevendosje rally organizers
Vetevendosje fills the streets of Prishtina
Several leaders delivered thunderous speeches from the tops of trucks as citizens rallied around.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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