Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tangled History, Improbable Peace

Kosovo is a region that, like Palestine and Kashmir, has gained worldwide fame for its unhappy recent history. Located in southern Serbia but with a majority Albanian (Kosovar) population it enjoyed a good deal of autonomy during the Communist period. So, after the fall of Communism, when the inevitable demand for independence was declared the bigger northern parent predictably moved in to 'protect its citizens'. There followed an exodus of people on both sides before the West, under the aegis of NATO with America and the Brits at the fore, intervened taking the side of the Kosovars (an easy choice as the Serbs, under Milosevic. were already a pariah state), forcing out the Serb forces and setting up a UN-run administration to try and sort out the mess. Now the western powers seem to be pushing for an independent Kosovo whereas Serbia, backed by the West's latest nemesis, Russia, will have none of it. In the Western media right and wrong seem self-evident as we all cheer for the plucky Kosovars, whereas on closer inspection the whole sorry mess is far more complicated (as is always the case).

The Kosovars would say that they are the original inhabitants of the region and therefore it belongs to them, but since the Serbs have been around in significant numbers for the past 800 years or more I consider that a moot point (though I have met Kosovars who claim that all the old churches dotted around the country are fakes, built only 50 years ago and part of a great Serb conspiracy to make people think that they've been there longer than they really have). They would also say that they have always been repressed by the Serbs, but in fact the balance of power has shifted many times over the years between the two sides, and whichever side has had the upper hand has taken out its frustrations on the other. And so both groups can point to past grievances to support their arguments. In fact Milosevic's rise to power was due to his defence of the Serbs who in the late 80's were having a hard time under the then-dominant Kosovars. Then in the 90's the Kosovars took advantage of the demonisation of Milosevic and the West's propensity to help the underdog and provoked the Serbs into a guerrilla conflict. Neither side acted in an exemplary manner and many independent observers say that the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) were particularly callous in actually wanting the Serbs to commit atrocities against their own people to get media sympathies on their side, something they achieved after some 800,000 Kosovars were forced to flee the region and become refugees. And so NATO duly stepped in with their "humanitarian bombing" campaign in early 1999 which infamously targeted civilian structures such as bridges, power plants and TV stations (and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade). The self-proclaimed goal of the mission was: "Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back." An unfortunate turn of phrase as although the Serb military was routed and NATO forces and Kosovar refugees returned, only to be replaced by around 200,000 Serb refugees who fled the inevitable reprisals (it seems that no-one is ever innocent in war these days). And ever since the region has been administered by NATO.

And so the place is in a strange limbo before nationhood inhabited and controlled by expats belonging to various acronymic organisations and cliques: UNMIK, OSCE, UNDP, KFOR, UNHCR, ICRC, EUPT and plenty of others who arrived after the alphabet had been divvied up and had to settle for ordinary names (Halo Trust, Save the Children...). Kosovo is awash with white Landcruisers, for me the ultimate icon of UN profligacy. The Kosovars are anxiously awaiting the day they finally get their independence - it seems inevitable, not only because of international opinion, but because things have gone too far and there is too much bad blood for it to be possible to ever go back (one just has to look at the statues of martyrs from the conflict that are given pride of place in every town). Despite promises of human rights, equality and respect for minorities the thought of independence scares the living daylights out of the Serbs that remain, mostly in enclaves protected by KFOR (NATO peacekeepers) and, to all intents and purposes, cut off from the rest of Kosovo. And with reason too: many Orthodox churches as well as Serb properties were burned and destroyed (the few churches that remain in Kosovar towns now have to be guarded round the clock by foreign troops and are strictly off limits to Kosovars) in reprisal by the Kosovars after the arrival of NATO troops, Some Serbs are even too afraid to leave their villages.

What intrigues me most, however, are the parallels between Kosovo and Nagorny Karabagh. Both areas had concentrations of minorities with a different language and religion; both regions are culturally important for the majority group (Kosovo contains the seat of the first Serb patriarchate and is also the site of Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs lost a major battle against the Ottomans, perhaps the most pivotal event in Serb history, like Culloden for the Scots); both sides are using 'historical evidence' to further their claims; and both the guerrilla conflicts were dirty. Despite these similarities (and there are more) the reactions towards the conflicts from the West have been completely different. In Karabagh the West has firmly taken the side of the Azerbaijanis, denouncing the Karabaghi declaration of independence and demanding a return to Azerbaijani sovereignty. Here in Kosovo, on the other hand, the West is insisting on independence for the region. Is it because Serbia makes a handy enemy, or could it possibly have something to do with the fact that Azerbaijan has got lots and lots of oil? I would hate it to be because of the latter but I'm too much of a cynic to think otherwise. Whatever the reasons it's certainly clear that the Kosovars are glad that America and Britain are fighting their fight, so much so that most big towns have got Bill Clinton and Tony Blair streets (if you don't believe me just check the picture below). Perhaps that's the reason why George Bush went into Iraq so readily (and why Tony was so eager to follow him) - he wanted to be imortalised in a country's transport system.

Politics and history aside Kosovo is a place still worthy of a quick visit. Of the orthodox churches that are still intact there are some absolute gems with peerless frescoes and forests of columns. and in Prizren they have one of the most relaxed towns in the Balkans with plenty of streetside cafes. Some other places are less pretty: in Peja many houses are still in the process of being repaired from the damage they suffered in 1999 (people often don't have enough money to do all the repairs at once so they do bits and pieces as and when they can afford it) and Prishtina is just an ugly town filled with horrible Communist buildings.

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