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.

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