Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reflections on my Trip to Kosovo and Macedonia

I recently spent ten days in the Western Balkans to do some final interviews for my book on how the European Union, the United States, the UN and NATO have influenced ethnic relations in these countries over the past decade.  Such a fascinating trip, I thought I might post a few of my initial impressions.  

(I don't have awesome photographic evidence of this, but believe me when I say that cafes, bars, streets--granted this is Kosovo where people are Muslims and it was Ramadan, and not in the capitol city of Pristina--was mostly populated by dudes.  A conservative estimate would be 80-20.)  

The first map shows the main ethnic bone of contention in both Kosovo and Macedonia--the size and concentration of a politically active Albanian diaspora in Kosovo (around 90 percent) and Macedonia (around 25 percent).  In practice, this means that Kosovo is in the hands of Albanians with Slavs in the minority, and Macedonia in the hands of Slavs, with Albanians in the minority.  This is THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE driving the domestic politics of both countries.  There has been an upsurge on ethnic "incidents" and nationalist sentiment in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia in recent years--basically revolving around the status of Albanians in these countries, their links across borders and their status of Albanians in the region as a whole.

In Kosovo, ethnic relations are most fraught.  The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), organized and funded by the Kosovo Albanian diaspora in Switzerland and elsewhere, began a war of guerrilla resistance against the Serb state in 1998.  Their cause was taken up by NATO air forces in 1999, which expelled Serb forces from the province in a 3-month bombing campaign.  From the UN resolution 1244 that declared an international protectorate in 1999 until Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, the province was run by the international community with the 92 percent Albanian majority since left in charge of the state.  Many Serbs fled or were driven out during the war, and many more left Kosovo for Serbia in the ensuing years.  

Meanwhile, the remaining 8 percent Serb minority is mostly concentrated in the northern region (north of the Ibar River), which borders on Serbia, and in a few scattered enclaves in the south.  The status of these communities has been in dispute ever since the end of the 1999 NATO war.  Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and by now over half of the world's states have recognized Kosovo statehood (important exceptions include China and Russia).  Earlier this year, a major agreement brokered by the EU mandated that Serbia dismantle its “parallel structures” which had been used to maintain influence over (and even control of) the land occupied by Serbs in Kosovo, particularly in the north.  With the agreement now in the process of implementation, Belgrade-controlled police stations, courts and so on are being dismantled in the north, thus hastening the day when the Serb minority will be fully integrated with the Albanian-dominated Kosovo state.

In neighboring Macedonia, ethnic relations are perhaps an order of magnitude calmer.  With the exception of a brief war in 2001, triggered by remnants of KLA fighters from Kosovo who pushed over the border, the NATO-brokered agreement ending the war appears to have ushered in a period of ethnic calm (in spite of ongoing ethnic tensions and segregation).  Relations remain fraught between the Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority (25 percent of the population largely concentrated in the northeast, near Kosovo border).  However, there has always been a minority Albanian party in the ruling coalition, and the ethnic majority has always been committed to developing a multi-ethnic multi-cultural Macedonian state since its independence in 1991 (although this point is debatable today, given the current nationalist government--more on this below).  There has been a turn for the worse in ethnic relations since the 2008 NATO summit when Greece successfully vetoed Macedonia's accession to NATO over its dispute concerning Macedonia’s name.  Membership in both NATO and EU has stalled pending a successful resolution of a dispute with Greece over the new country’s name.

The above facts are fairly well established.  Now come my own initial impressions, randomly catalogued in bullet-pointed format:

(1)   My biggest take-away was that Macedonian elites (and even the public) are generally far more relaxed concerning minority/ethnic issues than in Kosovo.  

As one former Macedonian intelligence officer told me, when the Albanian resistance surged across the country and approached the capital in early 2001, the government couldn’t find enough young Macedonians to fight the resistance, their attitude being: “all they want is more places in public administration, why should we fight them?” 

In fact, my interviewees in Macedonia were so reasonable (from all parties!) that they even came up with reasons for why they were so reasonable, compared to their counterparts in Kosovo.  First, their minority had never tried to divide the state territorially (although this might have occurred had the international community not stepped in so quickly).  Also (maybe more important), Macedonia had never been bombed by NATO, nor had they lost any of their territory (as happened to Serbia in the 1999 war, when they lost Kosovo).  AND there was a far more significant history of ethnic repression in Kosovo than in Macedonia.

STILL, if the United States were facing an armed insurgency by a minority, what are the chances that Americans would be so philosophical and understanding?  No, American politicians would go ape, and you can rest assured that the government would have no trouble drafting people to fight the insurgency.  Just think of the Minuteman Project, a voluntary association of wackos who since 2005 have camped out on the U.S. southern border to defend against border-crossers from Mexico--their targets undocumented workers who merely want to work in the U.S. for substandard wages.  Just imagine if the border-crossers were armed with territorial ambitions...

Now consider Kosovo.  Here, the Albanian majority considers Serbs to be basically hostile to the Kosovo state, which is not far from the truth. The Serb minority believes Kosovo is still rightly Serbian territory and the repository of Serbian nationalism.  In Mitrovica, a divided city in the north (Serbs on the north side of the Ibar River, Albanians on the south side), I interviewed two young Serb lawyers about recent developments in the north.  They had been involved in one of the working groups on dismantling Belgrade’s institutions in northern Kosovo.  They told me that Serbia had been “tricked,” “betrayed,” “fooled” into giving up Kosovo territory.  And that Belgrade would regret this decision, which had been pushed on them by Germany’s Angela Merkel, as a condition of getting into the EU.  Serbian leaders’ lust for the EU is seen as the main reason for “betraying” their ethnic kin in Kosovo, and Kosovo’s Serbs (particularly in the relatively autonomous north) feel the betrayal bitterly.

The way I make sense of this difference is the continuing involvement of Serbia in stirring up tensions in Kosovo.  Serbs (particularly in northern Kosovo) have received services, salaries, pensions, and voting privileges from Serbia; this makes them highly unwilling to integrate into the Kosovo state.  The international community has been lackadaisical in restraining Serbia and inducing ethnic Serbs to integrate into the state, leaving northern Kosovo basically a no man's land between Kosovo proper and Serbia proper.   Finally, the Albanian-led government have not exactly cultivated an attitude of compromise with the minority Serbs, nor do they acknowledge the fears and sense of injustice and humiliation felt by Serbs (in Serbia and Kosovo) for having lost territory to a new de facto Albanian state.

Albanian nationalism can be seen in the use of flags, where the Albanian state flag is used informally by the Kosovo Albanians as their own national flag (with obvious inflammatory implications).  When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a competition was held for a new flag, and the flag on the right is the result; the stars represent Kosovo's six major ethnic groups (Albanians, Turks, Bosniaks, Gorani, Roma and Serbs).  Its similarities to the EU flag are no accident... throughout the country, the two flags are often flown together.

(2) The U.S. is seen as THE number one important actor in both countries, despite the fact that it is gradually pulling out of the region and relegating ever more authority to the EU.

This has already happened in Bosnia, where the U.S. pulled out its forces and the EU has largely taken over from both the U.S. and the UN.  Similar trends can be seen in Kosovo, where EULEX has taken over from UNMIK (a UN mission).  The EU has a much larger formal role than the U.S. in Macedonia, where there is an entire government department dedicated to fulfilling the EU accession criteria, necessary for gaining admittance to the EU.

Despite all of this, the U.S. remains the biggest (often shadow) player in the two countries, with the biggest influence according to all sides.  Numerous interviewees in both countries noted that the EU is important for providing the carrots for good behavior (e.g., promises of admission into the EU club--offering access to EU structural funds, among other things).  However, my informants gave me to believe that when the U.S. says “jump,” they say “how high”?  Parenthetically, more than one interviewee noted that the EU was somehow “easier to trick,” because they believed in diplomacy, rules, and dialogue.  If the government says they will do something, then EU officials tend to take them at their word.  By contrast, U.S. officials (while often idealists at heart) are less likely to take any of these guys at their word and has no problem dispensing threats if they believe it is needed for maintaining political stability.

(3) What the hell is going on with Macedonia's clownish urban renewal project?

What does it mean to be Macedonian?  A country whose ethnic majority identifies with Greece? A country that has more in common with Bulgaria, which has a very similar language?  A country that shares a long history with Serbia of belonging to the same state (nearly 100 years)?  The confusion is evident in the controversial urban renewal project, Skopje 2014, which is dedicated to erecting classicist buildings commemorating the country's national ties to ancient Macedonian figures such as Philip II of Macedon and of course Alexander the Great.  The project has many critics who compare it to Disneyland or Las Vegas (not to mention criticisms over the cost of the project (between 80 and 500 million euros during a time of record high unemployment and economic hardship).  According to Artist Aleksander Stankoski

"Everybody was confused by what was going on: Classicism coming after Modernism? In art history, it is hardly possible, but we are doing it: a bourgeois version of Social Realism, with Art Deco touches!"  He predicted that Impressionism was next.

Artist Matej Bogdanovski quipped, "...the wave has swept over us all and today we're swimming in a murky swamp full of Baroque facades, Antique Columns, Classicism, warriors horses, bronze, marble, a glorious past, an undefined future...while the world is laughing."

Indeed.  Assuming the world knew of it.

Why are they doing this?  Opinions vary, but most certainly it was cooked up in the wake of the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, in which Macedonia expected to get an official invitation to NATO, only to be blocked by Greece's threatened veto--the country that has objected to the Macedonian name on grounds that they were appropriating Greek national symbols and might even make claims on the territory of northern Greece.  Why Greece can't be persuaded to drop its objections given its current weakness is an interesting question.  

Bringing this around full circle, the renewal project is seen variously as a strategic play against Greece's blockage of Macedonia's membership in NATO and, alternatively, as retaliation.  More likely, the new-ish nationalist government is making a play to appeal to the increasing nationalism in the country due to the failure of the IC to push past Greece's veto.  Also, it is a black eye to Albanians who have been clearly written out of this history, as they have no myth of a Classical past.  This, and bubbling nationalist rhetoric coming out of Albania last year, has contributed to a spate of inter-ethnic violence in the country in 2012; tensions are still riding high.

(4) The story of Northern Kosovo is super fascinating.  And the role of Berlin in pushing a resolution to the crisis might herald a more muscled EU with Germany at its helm.

A divided city with two separate currencies (Serbian dinars in the north, euros in the south), where Albanians never go to the north and Serbs never go to the south?  Where the Serbs in the north blocked passage over the main bridge linking the two sides with a giant pile of dirt? Who can resist such a story? 

 (In the map of Kosovo above, the white line is the Ibar River, the yellow majority Serb municipalities, and the enlarged area is the divided city of Mitrovica.)

Bottom-line: Northern Kosovo is the ultimate enclave, where Belgrade has basically claimed de facto sovereignty in the region since the early 2000s, with the international community declining to enforce the terms of the peace agreement in the north.  The bridge was originally patrolled by the self-appointed Serb nationalist "Bridgewatchers" (now defunct), who themselves incited violence with Albanians more than once over the years, in an attempt to prevent Albanians from traveling into the north.  

The violence that has been seen in Kosovo (since the 2004 riots) has been concentrated in the north, and particularly along this explosive national fault-line between Serbia and Kosovo.  Till the recently EU-brokered Brussels agreement this spring, the Serbs have had parallel government structures financed by the north, allowing them to avoid integration into the greater Kosovo state.  In the past few years, the international community (particularly NATO) has taken the lead in breaking this down, but the local Serb leaders have maintained their resistance, particularly the main power players, the "four mayors" of north Kosovo municipalities.

The four mayors (pictured below) basically make all the important decisions with respect to the region's relationship with Belgrade versus Pristina.  The vaunted Assembly of Municipalities in the North doesn't matter nearly as much as these mayors, who have (until recently) stated that they will not comply with Serbia's recent decision that they cooperate with the Albanian-led state.

Here comes Berlin swinging a bat.  Apparently, it's one thing to get Serbia to agree to defund the parallel structures (seen as critical in integrating the north with the rest of Kosovo).  According to the lawyers I interviewed in north Mitrovica, Berlin told Serbia in no uncertain terms that if they don't go the extra step and get the local Serbs to vote in the upcoming Kosovo elections (it is worth pointing out that Serbia previously ordered the minority to boycott such elections), then Serbia may not gain admission to the EU.  Belgrade has responded by engaging with Kosovo Serb leaders to try to get them to participate.  Thus, local Serbs grumble that Belgrade has sold them out... They are understandably unhappy with EULEX, the EU-led rule of law mission in Kosovo that is taking the lead in this process.  Such scrawled protests (below) were on more than one building in North Mitrovica.

Despite all of this, I think things are likely to improve in both countries for the future.  Of course, prospects are considerably better if the international community (EU, UN, U.S., NATO) are clear and consistent about the standards that must be met to get the two countries into the Euro-Atlantic clubs--not to mention standards that must be kept post-accession to ensure that they gain access to various funds.  This is complicated by the problem that the IC's attention is no longer focused on the Balkans, for the problems there (though serious) do not threaten genocide, civil war, or even serious minority repression.  However, there are precedents for worsening domestic politics in troubled societies when the IC averts its gaze, no matter how well-justified.  Let us hope that the EU picks up any slack created by U.S./NATO withdrawal from the region.


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