Monday, May 21, 2007

Kosovo Roundtable

On March 27, 2007, we met with the following persons to discuss the situation in Kosovo.
Ø Chad Rogers, National Democratic Institute – moderator
Ø Isak Vorgucic, Radio KIM
Ø Krenar Gashi, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
Ø Nenad Djurdjevic and Danijela Nenadic, Center for NonViolent Resistance
Ø Gyrogy Kakuk, United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)
Ø Nenad Sebek, Center of Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe

Mr. Rogers provided an overview of Kosovo, which is an autonomous province of Serbia, bordering Albania. It has no official economy and lacking political leadership. The Serbs consider Kosovo their ethnic heartland, where Serbia was founded. However, the majority of the residents in Kosovo are ethnically Albanian and Muslim. After Yugoslavia fell apart, all that was left was Serbia and Macedonia. Last year, Macedonia (peacefully) separated from Serbia and now Kosovo wants independence.

(National Public Radio has an overview of the Kosovo situation here:

In the 1990s there was a Kosovo war that is connected somehow to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Milosevic. It is rather appalling how ignorant we Americans are about what happened in this part of the world, although I dimly recall President Clinton ordering troops to Kosovo. Not once do I think I was taught about the Balkans, other than there are many ethnic groups living there that don't get along. Now I was in the heart of it.

Since 1999, Kosovo has been administered by UNMIK, an interim civilian administration under the authority of the United Nations. The UN also appointed a special representative, Martti Ahtisaari, to investigate the possibility of Kosovar independence.

As we were in Belgrade, Mr. Ahtisaari released his report that paved the way for Kosovar independence with UN supervision. The UN and the European Union said that they would support the report's recommendations. Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power and Serbian ally, may delay the process. They are concerned that the Kosovo case could be a precedent to be applied to Chechnya.

The contrast with our lives in the US was vast. Can you imagine any state in the US wanting to become independent and the UN appointing a special administrator to oversee that state? Very little in our lives are affected by the UN, and here the fate of a province the size of Connecticut was a pawn of UN, Russian, and other international powers.

The roundtable discussion was deep, touching on events and hostilities in Serbian and Kosovar history stretching back to the Middle Ages, major events in their history that we Americans were absolutely ignorant of. It quickly became impossible for me to follow the discussion as the 7 panelists talked at each other. Again, I was impressed by their English, which was fluent, rapid, and polite.

What I did understand was that the Serbs and Kosovars, despite living in the same towns, do not interact. As Mr. Sebek said, Kosovo is not a multiethnic society, rather more a collection of unrelated ethnic enclaves and independence will not magically make Kosovo into an integrated multiethnic society. And that borders exist only as the dominant power/superpowers recognize them.

The concern is that if Kosovo becomes independent, there will be no agencies to protect the Serbian minority, if things go bad. That is a real possibility since Kosovo has no real economy and ethnic hostilities breakout when people feel financial stress. If the Serbs in Kosovo move to Serbia, they would essentially be refugees, and need help resettling in Serbia.

Originally, a visit to a refugee shelter was on our schedule, but it didn't work out. I was very interested in seeing a refugee camp. In Serbia, the refugees are largely ethnic Serbs who lived in other parts of the Balkans, forced to leave and then "return" to Serbia, even if it's been generations since their families lived in Serbia.

One of the AMMF fellows asked "Why should Americans care about Kosovo?"

This is how the panelists replied:
1. President Clinton began the in intervention in Kosovo because of human right violations by the Serbs against the Albanian Kosovars.
2. However, after 9/11/2001, Kosovo fell off the radar. Since the war in Iraq is a failure, the US needs a foreign policy success and Kosovo could be it. And since the US broke it in the 1990s, then the US has to fix it.
3. Stability in South Eastern Europe will prevent the next human rights problem.
4. Stability will bring economic development and US businesses can benefit (for example, US Steel)
5. The US can help a Muslim country/area and prevent a blossoming of Islamic extremism. There was great debate about the possibility of Islamic extremism occurring in Kosovo. 400 years ago, Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam, and yet extremism has not ever occurred. Albania (and the Albanians in Kosovo) are majority Muslim, but there is very low religiosity. They are more ethnically Muslim, the ethnic Jews or Christmas/Easter Catholics. That is they are religious only on the major holy days and largely secular otherwise.
6. The US no longer has an airbase in Germany and so the US needs Camp Bonsteel in Kosovo to reach Russia and the Middle East.

They are concerned that the US is trying to reduce foreign aid to SE Europe and the Western Balkans. US Agency for International Development is focused on building business rights, human rights, and other political, military, and economic infrastructure and then withdrawing. The panelists felt that transatlantic relations were are at low point.

Economic concerns
Ø Since 1999, Kosovo has been de facto independent, due to UN intervention, but there has been no economic development because no de jure independence.
Ø Kosovo is a consumptive economic and 40% of consumables consumed in Kosovo are made in Serbia.
Ø politicians talk about independence with no plan for economic development.
Ø 47% of Kosovo’s GDP is funded by remittances from Kosovars living outside Kosovo and much of it is invested in bricks.
Ø The government has still a good success of collecting revenue, a flat 20% VA tax.
Ø Education and health care comprise 17% of the governmental budget, as opposed to the regional average of 30%.
Ø The mafia/criminal gangs operate freely in this environment of stagnant official economic growth. And there are NGOs and civil societies that cooperate with them.
Ø If Kosovo signs it own contract with the IMF, that removes $1 million from Serbia’s debt and then they could borrow more for Serbian capital projects. So Kosovar independence would begin with the country in debt.

I was so impressed by the depth of the panelists’ knowledge of the US and our foreign policy needs. Of course, we were meeting with a very select and knowledgeable group of people. Still, I would bet the majority of Americans don’t know what the US’s foreign policy priorities are, our history in interacting with other countries, and probably don’t care. And probably have no idea where the Balkans are and their issues. That is to our detriment.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Belgrade Schedule

This was my schedule in Belgrade, Serbia, March 23 to 28, 2007.

Serbia was part of the former Yugoslavia that broke up into 6 new countries in a civil war in the 1990s. This war was the first time that gang rape of women (Bosnians Muslims, mostly, but other women too, by Serbian Christians) were recognized as a tactic of war, and the massacre of Bosnians, Croatians, and other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia were recognized as genocide. Several war criminals, including Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadizic remain at large, and believed to still be in Serbia.

Serbia wants to join the European Union and become a modern state. A major challenge is locating and apprehending the war criminals and sending them to the Hague to stand trial. However, as we heard over and over again, 30% of the population are nationalists and don't want to join the EU and regard the war criminals as war heroes.

I travelled with Natasha Jones, Communications Manager for King County government: Jeff Merritt, Eastern Regional Director for Government and Public Affairs for KB Homes; Hussein Samatar, Executive Directorof African Development Center; and Michael Webber, Associate Director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and Professor at the University of Texas-Austin. We were joined part way by Todd Culpepper, Executive Director of the International Affairs Council.

March 23, Friday
Afternoon -- arrive in Belgrade from Rome. This process involved a layover in Vienna.
7:30pm to ? -- welcome dinner with Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund, and our local host

Back at the hotel room, I watched a CNN documentary about the Bosnian children of war. During the war, tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim women were abducted and held in concentration camps and gang raped by Serbian men. The systematic use of rape led to the U.N. war crimes tribunal to recognize ethnically motivated rape as a war crime, part of the Serbs’ campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The women who didn't die in the rape camps were held captive until birth. Many children were abandoned because the women could not face the constant reminder of their ordeal, or were killed. Others were adopted. Most do not know about their origin and are now old enough to ask where their mothers and/or fathers are. The show also profiled Bosnian women going to Belgrade to testify against their Serbian rapists. These women are so brave to go into enemy territory to do so.

At RWN, we work with refugees who are fleeing exactly this kind of persecution and do work with many Bosnian women. It just absolutely blows my mind that I was actually in Serbia and my first night there, to see this program.

March 23, Saturday
10:30 to 12pm -- meeting at Civic Initiatives, Citizen's Association for Democracy and Civic Education. This organization was founded in 1996 by activists in opposition to Milosovic. The purpose is to educate citizens to be active participants in building a democracy. We met the founders, Mr. Miljenko Dereta and Ms. Dubravka Velat. A longer post about democracy in Serbia will follow. Several of our meetings were with pro-democracy activists.

12:30 to 6:30pm -- visit to the US Steel mill in Smederevo. During the war in the 1990s, the steel mill was shut down. Recently it was bought by US Steel and the Serbs are very happy, as it is an indicator of economic stability that will allow more foreign investment.

We also learned that Serbs eat lunch at 3pm. We Americans were not used to it, and can now confirm that it is true that hunger deters learning.

The tour itself was fascinating and our guide said that watching molten metal turned into thin sheets of steel never got old for her.

8pm to ? -- dinner with civil society representatives:

Dragan Popovic, Youth Initiative for Human Rights

Jelena Rankovic and Srdjan Mitrovic, Hajde Da...

Miljenko Dereta and Dubravka Velat, Civic Initiatives

Miodrag Shrestha, Group 484

Daniel Sumter, Euro-Atlantic Initiative

March 25, Sunday

12 to 2:30pm -- tour of Belgrade, including the Kalamagdan park, the Military Museum, Sava Church, and Tito's grave. We also saw many buildings that were bombed by NATO during the war such as the Chinese embassy (an accident) and the headquarters of the secret police (not an accident). Amazingly, the buildings on either side of those buildings were untouched. Talk about precision bombing. Underneath the highway overpasses, we saw families living among trash dumps. The guide told us they were gypsies/Roma.

This tower was built by the Hungarians in the 1800s to mark Serbia as a part of the Hungarian empire. You can see a bit of the graffitti at the base. Our guide said that 14 ethnic minority groups live in Serbia, a legacy of centuries of being part of different empires, such as the Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman empires.
Part of the exhibit at the Military Museum The tan waters of the Sava river meets the blue Danube river

evening -- dinner in, at the hotel, just by ourselves.

March 26, Monday

10:30 to 11:30 -- individual meetings. I met with Ms. Maja Bobic of the European Movement in Serbia. We discussed their women in government project, as there are very few women in the decision-making positions in the government.

In 2006, they conducted a virtual campaign to create an all-women government slate. There are 2 executive posts and 18 ministry posts in the governement and therefore they published in the newspapers the profiles of 161 women already holding office and invited the public to text message which of the women they would vote for to hold each of the 20 posts. During the 21 day virtual campaign, they received 30,000 votes. There was significant media coverage and there was an increase in women holding office from 10% to 21%.

The women who won the virtual election have been meeting regularly and have created their own nonprofit organization to continue this work.

11:45 to 12:30pm -- individual meeting with Marcel Grogan, Balkan Trust for Democracy regarding philanthropy and support for nonprofit organizations / NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Serbia. Essentially all NGOs are funded by foreign sources, mostly governmental, such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID). There is no philanthropic infrastructure to support charities and NGOs.

12:30 to 1:30pm -- tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Stretching your mind in a totally different way. There was an exhibit of British art, called Breaking Step / U Raskoraku. The most memorable pieces were:

  • M-path by Adam Chodzko -- shelves and shelves of shoes, arranged by size. Viewer are invited to borrow a pair and to literally walk in another person's shoes while in the museum. Hence the play on the word empathy. The shoes were donated by the residents of Belgrade and at the end of the show, will be donated to charity. This piece resonated with me, because in Serbia the alphabet is Cyrillic not Latin and I was rendered absolutely illiterate and dependent on our city coordinator in Belgrade. It reminded me of how difficult resettlement is for refugees and immigrants.
  • Replica of a witness box at the Hague tribunal -- don't have the name of the piece or the artist, but it was relevant, given the issue of genocide and war criminals yet to be sent to the Hague.
  • Translated letters -- again did not write down the name of the piece or the artist. The British artist had written a letter to a museum, proposing an art piece involving mindwaves and telepathy. The letter was only a few lines long. It was translated into French. The French letter was translated into Chinese, the Chinese letter into another language and so on, and back into English. The last letter bore no resemblence to the original English letter.

2 to 3pm -- Lunch with Obrad Savic, editor in chief of Belgrade Circle journal. He is also a professor of journalism and spoke about the need for a free media in a democracy. He is writing a book called Post-Secular Europe. Religion is re-emerging in post-communist, secular, small Eastern European countries which are also panicking about globalization. There is a need to find ways to balance religion and democracy. He spoke at length about the Turkey being Europe's change to build a bridge to Islam and for the European Union to come into the future.

4 to 5:30pm -- visit to CeSID, Center for Free Elections and Democracy. One of their major activities is election monitoring. They also monitor the monitors to ensure that they have not been "disappeared" by the nationalists. They also do public opinion polling, voting trends analysis, and get out the vote campaigns.

CeSID finds that there are 5.5 million registered voters (people are registered at birth) but half a million do not vote. Of the 5 million who do vote, about 1.4 million steadily support the right wing parties, and 2.5 million identify more with the democratic parties. There is a 30% of the population that are very traditional, looking to past, to 500 years ago (side note -- in the US, we barely have half that much history to look to.). They are nationalist, patriarchal, and anti-European. They are those who did not benefit when Yugoslavia fell apart, when communism ended, and so they are afraid, uncertain, and angry, so they vote conservatively.

Another universal truth.

8pm to ? -- dinner with media representatives:
Duska Anastasijevic, Vreme Magazine

Dejan Anastasijevic, Vreme Magazine

Slavica Vuceljic, TANJUG News Agency

Katarina Zivanovic, B92 Fund

Lidija Bartus-Vasiljevic, Studio B

Milica Mancic, BETA News Agency

Jeta Xharra, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network -- Kosovo

Krenar Gashi, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network -- Kosovo

It turns out that one of the journalists is a member of the Hapsburg royalty, but she didn't make a big deal out of it. It was more along the lines "Oh, my father is a Hapsburg count."

Later in the evening, two of us wanted to go dancing. Our city coordinator suggested a club managed by his cousin. In the end it was the city coordinator, another AMMF, and myself getting into a cab to go to the club. The club turned out to be a rave in an empty warehouse under a highway overpass.

We were not on the guest list and we waited at least 15 minutes as the city coordinator tried to call his cousin's cellphone and talk our way in. With each passing minute, the other AMMF and I began to get a bad feeling. I looked into the dark rave and considered that I didn't speak the language, couldn't read any signs, and if I were to go into the loud, dark rave with hundreds of dancers, it could end badly. I could be human trafficked and the other AMMF if he was with me, just killed. Eventually, he and I jumped into a cab and returned to the hotel.

March 27, Tuesday
10:15 to 12pm -- Kosovo Roundtable discussion with

  • Chad Rogers, National Democratic Institute -- moderator
  • Isak Vorgucic, Radio KIM
  • Krenar Gashi, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
  • Nenad Djurdjevic and Danijela Nenadic, Center for NonViolent Resistance
  • Gyrogy Kakuk, United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)
  • Nenad Sebek, Center of Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe

This will be discussed in another post.

12:30 to 2:30pm -- visit to the European Union Integration Office. We met Tanja Miscevic, the executive director, and professor of political science. The EU Integration office is the department within the Serbian government that liaises with the EU and monitors and coordinates Serbia’s progress in meeting the criteria for joining the EU. This office also communicates with the general public about the process and the media has identified their office as the most transparent governmental agency. They are also designed to cover the western Balkans.

The biggest challenge Serbia faces in this process are:
Ø the fact that war criminals still have not been apprehended and sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or ICTY, a body of the United Nations (UN) established to prosecute serious crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It is located in the Hague in the Netherlands.
Ø At the time of our visit, Serbia had no government. Elections were held in January, but for some reason, the government had not formed. An interim government was running the country until a permanent government could be seated. (That occurred in May 2007.)
Ø 20% to 30% of the population that is very conservative, isolationist, and nationalistic and do not want to join the EU and consider the war criminals to be war heroes.
Ø Lack of communication with the general public of the EU states, who have a vote on whether or not Serbia will be allowed to join.
Serbia also thinks Turkey’s inclusion is necessary. If Turkey is shut out, there will a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Given that Serbia’s history with Muslims, that could be problematic.

However, Serbia’s concerned more with the integrity of the EU process. If they (Serbia, Turkey, any other countries) meet the EU criteria, they should be included. There has to be faith that following the rules will result in EU membership. Serbia is also concerned that EU expansion fatigue will set in and Serbia, the Western Balkans, and Turkey will be shut out.

I found it interesting that Ms. Miscevic said that they want to join the EU even though there is no clarity on what the EU means and where it is going.

They are hoping Serbia, the Western Balkans, and Turkey will join the EU by June 28, 2014, the 100th anniversary of World War I. I knew WWI began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However I did not know the killer was Serbian.

3 to 4pm – lunch with European Marshall Memorial Fund fellows and selection committee members:

Ø Lazar Mricevic, Center for Development of Serbia
Ø Dusan Vasiljevic, OSCE Head of Economic and Environmental Development
Ø Vera Didanovic, journalist and Balkan MMF fellow
Ø Senad Sabovic, International Crisis Group (Kosovo), and Balkan MMF fellow
Ø Lana Pavlovic, Coordinator of the Deputy Mayor Cabinet of the City of Belgrade and Balkan MMF fellow
Ø Aaron Presnall, Jefferson Institute
Ø Nenad Sebek, Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe

4:45 to 6pm – Tour of B92 Omnimedia studios. B92 began in 1989 as a youth radio station and has been active in opposing oppressive government and advocating for human rights. They have now grown to include a TV network, internet providing service, book publishing, audio recording label and a cultural center. The co-founder and chair of the board of directors, Sasha Mirkovic said that their visibility is their protection. They are so popular that if the government tried to silence them, the public would protest.

8pm to ? – farewell dinner with the staff of the Balkan Trust for Democracy at a riverside restaurant. There was a live band who performed three songs in English, including “Love Shack” and “New York, New York.”

March 28, Wednesday
8am – flight to Brussels, Belgium for the last stop on the fellowship trip.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Italy's Policy towards the poor and the immigrants -- the role of NGOs

On March 21, 2007, we spent the evening in the community of Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome with many refugees and immigrants. We met with Claudio Betti, who works with English-speaking countries on behalf of the Romanic Church of Sant'Egidio, in Trastevere.

Ms. Betti showed us a building owned by the church that houses people with disabilities, a restaurant run by the church and staffed by people with disabilities, and we visited a soup kitchen for people who are homeless. The people cooking and serving were reflective of the clientele, that is Romans and international on both sides. Mr. Betti said that most people who are homeless in Italy were immigrants.

I was impressed that the church was able to attain a street address for the soup kitchen, so that the people who are homeless could have a mailing address, which is necessary when applying for jobs.

After the tour, we returned to the church to learn more about their grassroots programs. As we were walking down and down through stone doorways, I wondered if we were going all the way to the catacombs, but we did not.

The church is rooted in the gospel, but is not interested in trying to convert people. Rather, they believe in the three pillars of the gospel, serving the poor, and the importance of friendship, which motivates their grassroots work.

Mr. Betti spoke about the need to rediscover the belief in nonviolence, in total nonviolence, and to believe in the power of the people and the possibility of change. It was wonderful to hear a message and philosophy that is so positive and empowering, like RWN.

It is this attitude that allows the Community of Sant'Egidio to be heard by hardline Muslim extremists. On the other hand, he finds that American evangelicals are difficult to talk with because they believe they have arrived and don't need to hear other viewpoints.

There was, as in every country we visited, extensive discussion about Islam. Mr. Betti spoke about the need for engage Muslims, not isolate them, and to understand that there are moderate Muslims, that not all Muslims are terrorists. That only pushes them away and hardens them against those who call them terrorists. Yet the US invasion of Iraq creates more extremism because violence begets only more violence.

We also discussed the situation in Darfur, Sudan. Mr. Betti mentioned that Nancy Pelosi referred to it as genocide. Yet if you call it genocide, the mass murder to extinguish an entire group of people, then you are morally compelled to respond, to send troops on the ground to stop it. You can't just talk.

He asserted that the Sudanese government in Khartoum airlifts the janjaweed from area to area, flying right over the African Union troops on the ground. Therefore the solution is to bomb the airstrips. Not sure how that jibes with the principle of absolute nonviolence.

As we talked, at 6pm, the church bells rang. The bells ring every day to give people pause to think about the poor and the sick. In that church basement, there was absolute silence. There was a window and we could see the sky, but heard no birds singing, no street traffic. It was incredibly peaceful to sit and just think about others. We need more of that in our lives.

After a minute or so, we finished the discussion about the culture of violence that makes people think that war is the solution.

For dinner, we went to the restaurant that is run by the church and staffed by people with disabilities. Unfortunately I don't have the name of the place, but it is near the church of Sant'Egidio and has been favorably reviewed by Roman restaurant critics. What a great example of a social enterprise: a for-profit business that also lives up to a social justice principle. We need more of that too.

The evening ended by going to mass at the church. Mr. Betti provided the English translation via headsets. My headset didn't work, but it was nice and peaceful to listen to the Italian.

Religion can be such an incredibly divisive topic, but there were no objections from the non-Catholics among us to attend the mass. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Literally.