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Lost in Conversion?

By Chris Deliso

When Kosovo’s Albanians celebrated the major Muslim holiday of Bajram, at the end of September, more than a few worshipers were conspicuous for their absence.

A trickle of media articles over the past few months have dealt with the issue of religion in Kosovo from a relatively unreported angle: the curious phenomenon of conversion. Apparently, Albanians in this Muslim-majority statelet have been increasingly ‘returning’ to the Catholic religion, which their ancestors had forsaken centuries ago.

This story is interesting and relevant in its own right, but has become particularly revealing in light of the way it has been developed in the media, something that raises another set of issues. Whereas early reports of a new trend towards conversion mentioned the fact that Albanians had been Christians before the Ottomans arrived in the 14th century, and converted thereafter, only recently have reports begun adding an element of victimology to the narrative.

For example, a Sept. 28 Reuters report that took the pulse of recently reborn Catholics in Kosovo claimed that ‘the majority of ethnic Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam, mostly through the imposition of high taxes on Catholics, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans.’

This almost seems to imply that other Christians were threatened with taxation by the Turks, but did not convert. It also ignores that in several places at different times, Christians seeking to convert were actually prevented from doing so because the Ottomans prudently sought they would lose a local tax base for relatively little in return.

Reuters’ description of ‘forcible conversion’ as something to be equated with desire for social advancement is a strange one. The real things that were forcible for the Ottomans were the forced kidnappings of young Christian men and women for the janissary corps and harems of Constantinople. Although there were far worse things to be suffered than paying high taxes by remaining Christian under the Turks, these were left out. In backwards hinterlands of the empire, as in Kosovo and Bosnia, the local Muslim lords were known for being especially pernicious towards those who did not desert their religion.

Although this disparity led to simmering resentments which had long-term influence, as pointed out by former NSA officer John Schindler in the Bosnian context, the article does not consider how inter-ethnic problems in Kosovo today might perhaps have roots in this phenomenon. Schindler notes that it was particularly in border hinterlands of the empire such as Bosnia and Kosovo that the rule of the Turks and converted local lords loyal to them was especially vicious. The Orthodox Christian Serbs clung to their religion- and suffered under the rule of those who found it expedient to change their own. Understanding the context of local opinions today requires an appreciation of this former relationship.

Within the Albanian community itself, how is the conversion issue playing out? The Kosovars interviewed by Reuters tended to take the ‘crypto-Christian’ route, by which they claimed that their forefathers only pretended to be Muslims: “for centuries, many remembered their Christian roots and lived as what they call ‘Catholics in hiding.’ Some, nearly a century after the Ottomans left the Balkans, now see the chance to reveal their true beliefs.”

The timing is indeed quite impeccable. Yet the experiences of this reporter indicate perhaps another motivation at work. In April, our team visited precisely the same church in Klina where the Reuters piece starts off at with the Sopi family (perhaps related to the famous, deceased Albanian bishop of that name?) However, speaking informally with young Albanians outside the church, a very different concept emerged. As one 20-year-old student put it: “we know that the West does not like Muslims and is against Islam. It is better for us to be Christians again.”

In Pristina, inside a small Catholic church, the caretaker informed us that some 21 people had come in the previous three months to re-embrace the faith; more were expected to emerge. As the Reuters article points out, a large Catholic cathedral is being built here, much to the displeasure of Muslim leaders. The article quotes the head of the Kosovo Islamic community, Mufti Naim Ternava, who is opposed to the building of the new cathedral at the heart of Pristina, as criticizing rural church-building as well: “no human brain can understand how a church should be build in the middle of 13 Muslim villages,” he said.

Supporters of Kosovar Catholicism inevitably point to Mother Teresa, born in nearby Skopje, who has became the symbol of Albanian Christianity far and wide, a cultural process that has brought criticism from Muslim groups in Albania itself. Recent examples of some of these animosities are discussed in my book The Coming Balkan Caliphate: The Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West (Praeger Security International, 2007), in which the present author maintains that, in Kosovo the end of the nationalist question (i.e., with the achievement of statehood) is the beginning of the religious one.

After Kosovo’s Albanian leaders declared independence on February 17, some explained the Arab world’s failure to recognize this decree as a sort of revenge. Kosovo had taken so much money and aid from them, but in the end had turned its back on Islam. And, when overt conversion to Catholicism came after simply irreligious Westernization, it was like adding insult to injury. This hypothesis has not been proven, but remains an interesting one. And months later, the Arab world has done little to champion the Kosovar cause.

In a surreal twist, Iran’s relations with Serbia have actually been bolstered more since then than they have with Kosovo. Belgrade’s recent victory at the United Nations, in getting the right to make a case over the legality of Kosovo’s secession, would have been much more difficult had the Arab countries banded together to defend it. Perhaps they are holding out for future concessions?

Nevertheless, some in the Islamist internationale see a definite opportunity in the new Kosovo. The day after Kosovo declared independence on February 17, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, stated that “there is no doubt that the independence of Kosovo will be an asset to the Muslim world and further enhance the joint Islamic action.”

The nature of this ‘action’ was left unclear. But from what we have seen over the past decade in Kosovo, it is unlikely to be without dangers.

Although some say it has been definitely defeated, fundamentalist Islam in Kosovo has had a long history and incubation period. Certain Western intelligence agencies believe it still poses a potential long-term problem, if politicians are unable to increase the standard of living and assure real independence.

The arrival of fundamentalist Islam was the result of strong cross-border logistical networks, ‘safe houses’ and propaganda channels blossomed after August 1999, when the United Nations began administering Kosovo following NATO’s bombing campaign. At that point, Wahhabi proselytizers from the Arab world descended on Kosovo in force. They arrived chiefly through humanitarian and cultural organizations, many under the umbrella of the Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya and the Saudi Red Crescent Society. According to numerous former UN officials in Kosovo, however, these ostensibly humanitarian groups spent most of their time building mosques, proselytizing, and paying Albanians monthly stipends to dress and act according to conservative Wahhabi mores.

Although American pressure led to some charities being uprooted following 9/11, many remained durable. A prime example is the RIHS. In 2003, leaked UN police reports and photos indicated the ongoing activities in Kosovo of a Kuwaiti worldwide charity, the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), which had been blacklisted by the Bush administration in Pakistan and Afghanistan for having ties to al Qaeda early the year before, and which had, in Albania during the early 1990s, been used to shield terrorists belonging to Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

At the same time in war-torn Bosnia, the RIHS was creating radical youth groups to disseminate jihad propaganda, catering to war orphans and other impressionable young people. The fact that the RIHS had, despite also being implicated in 500 simultaneous bombings in Bangladesh in August 2005, been allowed to continue its activities in Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia came to light in June 2006, with a Bosnian prosecutor’s investigation into some 14 million euros in RIHS funds that mysteriously could not be accounted for. Yet despite reportedly changing its addresses and information frequently in Bosnia, the organization still apparently works freely in the world’s newest independent state, Kosovo.

Along with building hundreds of new mosques, disseminating Islamist propaganda and inculcating it into the young, the proponents of Wahhabism sought to spread their tentacles by establishing an Islamic banking system in rural areas historically prone to isolationism and radicalism. One such charity, Islamic Relief, had already by September 2004 provided 500 loans to impoverished Kosovar farmers and small businessmen, according to “Islamic principles.” In poor areas where the West has shown little interest in supplying aid, the foreign Islamists have been happy to do so.

A further concern here is the convergence of terrorism with organized crime in Kosovo, particularly the global trafficking in human beings, narcotics and weapons. Kosovo has served as a terrorist transfer zone, in which Wahhabi-run villages and mosques became safe harbor for foreigners wanted in Western Europe or in their own countries for terrorism links.

The direct connection between terrorism and narcotics trafficking has been revealed on numerous occasions, as with Norway’s September 2006 arrest of al Qaeda operative Arfan Qadeer Bhatti. He and his accomplices were planning attacks on the US and Israeli embassies in Oslo; according to Norwegian news reports, they even planned to behead the Israeli ambassador. This Pakistani terrorist had connections with a Kosovo Albanian drug lord and even visited Pristina and Pec, a small town in western Kosovo, where he could administer to one of Kosovo’s largest Wahhabi flocks.

Nevertheless, radical Islam has failed to catch on with the masses, and the Vatican – led by a Europe-focused German Pope – is eager to build on its success in spreading Catholicism more widely.

An Italian journalist specializing in security issues who has conducted investigations in Kosovo, Paola Casoli, stated for Balkanalysis.com that the Catholic church’s “[ecumenical] concept and the huge network of relations due to the Vatican’s foreign politics [means] the presence of the Vatican through its representatives on the ground is obvious enough.”

According to Casoli, the church’s different approach to dealing with local Albanians also accounts for its success. “Add also the presence of ecclesiastic or ecclesiatic-related organizations, such as Caritas,” she says, citing a young Catholic Albanian, who maintained that the church “remained close to people’s needs, instead of [the Muslim groups that were] building mosques in every village.”

Casoli also sees the success of Catholicism in Kosovo these days as partially linguistic in nature. “Islamism imposes Arabic when addressing God and praying to Him,” she says, “whereas Albanians speak Albanian and not Arabic as their mother tongue,” and thus prefer this form of worship.

The reaction of Kosovo’s Muslim leaders has been fairly muffled, in part, Casoli maintains, because of a desire not to attract attention to their own movement.

At present, any danger of disputes or clashes between Catholic and Muslim Albanians is much more likely in Albania itself, where Islamic groups are more vocal.

The most active is the multilingual (Albanian, English and Turkish) non-governmental organization, the Muslim Forum of Albania, which has consistently spoken out against ‘Christianizing’ efforts, the veneration of Mother Teresa, and against criticism of Islam in general. The organization employs the modern guise of Islamic activism – that is, aiming its directives to the ‘international community’ and speaking the language of political correctness – in achieving its goals.

The most recent example, a press release from June directed to the OSCE, exemplifies this tactic. It is also ironic in light of the media’s recent focus on forced conversion to Islam in Ottoman days. Au contraire, opines the MFA: “what concerns our Forum the most are the many comments that have been made in Albania during these recent years where Islam has been depicted as a religion that goes contrary to Europe and the myth which claims that it was imposed upon the Albanians by Turkey. Comments that belittle the Muslims, Turkey and depict the Albanians as Christians converted by force in Islam have unfortunately found their way even [into] the Albanian school textbooks [in] recent years.”

Clearly, matters of religious belief are still being shaped by divergent historical interpretation in the Balkans today. If it were only a question of spirited debate, however, things would be relatively tame. However, a series of low-profile incidents, most unreported, continue. They include defacement of monuments in the north and churches in the Greek-minority south. One of the most interesting questions for the future is the extent to which a Catholic-Muslim divide in Kosovo will be felt in neighboring Albania, a country with strong social and historical connections.

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Greek Crackdown on Macedonian Journalists Draws International Condemnation, New Questions

By Christopher Deliso

The tense ordeal of four Macedonian journalists detained by police in a northern Greek village on Monday is gaining wider attention, and has caused an international outcry against the perceived heavy-handedness of Greek authorities- and what their apparent contempt for the free press may be covering for.

For their part, the Greeks are claiming that the Macedonian government is trying to stir up trouble; Greek Foreign Ministry Spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos accused Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of engaging in “a provocative effort to blatantly distort the truth,” reported Kathimerini. By daring to speak out against the crackdown, the Macedonian leader is, according to Koumoutsakos, making “a new, unacceptable attempt to intervene in Greek domestic affairs.”

However, the Greek version of ‘the truth,’swhich states that the journalists were somehow blocking military movements, and in the end left Greece of their own free will, is wildly at variance with what the journalists themselves experienced, as we will see below. It also ignores what local witnesses claim is a recent legacy of violence against civilians, and broken promises by the army in this normally quiet border region.

The journalists, from A1 Television and the Nova Makedonija newspaper, were detained by police near the Florina-area village of Lofi (Za’sbrdeni in Macedonian) and interrogated, after they had sought to interview ethnically Macedonian villagers involved with protests against a Greek Army military operation in the region (a newspaper report cites the villagers as being opposed to the operation because “the army’s use of live ammunition interferes with their farming.”

The journalists, who were consistently barked at in Greek by police despite not knowing the language particularly well, were threatened with having their equipment confiscated and ordered to leave the country. It is uncertain as to whether they will ever be allowed to return.

On Wednesday, the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO, an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), released a sharp critique of the Greek authorities’s actions. In a press release, the organization said the arrests left it “alarmed at recent restrictions on reporters’ ability to freely carry out their work in Greece,” with SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic condemning it as a “clear infringement of the free movement and freedom of expression of journalists.”

The Macedonian Foreign Ministry also cried foul, saying that the journalists’ detention “breaches Article 10 of the European Convention for Human Rights and OSCE documents on freedom of speech and expression,” reported the Sofia Echo. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was quoted in the same report as saying, “when [military exercises] are practically taking place in front of the yards of citizens and are not relocated after numerous demands of the population, it becomes obvious that some other motive is in question. We are talking about a demonstration of power and attempt at spreading fear among the population, which is a far from democratic move by an EU member country.”

Clearly, Greek officials were eager to prevent any on-the-ground interviews that could further prove this speculation. “Despite carrying valid press cards and visas for Greece,” the SEEMO summary added, “the [Macedonian] media representatives were detained because they did not have a special filming license and requested to hand over the material they had gathered at the demonstration. After their release, a police escort strongly advised them not to talk to eye witnesses of the protest and eventually escorted them to the border.”

The irony of it all is that one of the journalists detained, Goran Momirovski of A1 TV, has attained such a reputation for objectivity that he is frequently quoted in major Greek media. And he has often helped his Greek journalistic colleagues on their visits to Macedonia, in some cases personally intervening to get them access to facilities such as Parliament for which they had not obtained correct accreditation in advance.

Most recently, Momirovski took part in a special ‘excellence in journalism’straining program at the headquarters of the prestigious Christian Science Monitor newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts last month, in his role as a collaborator with the only English-language daily newspaper in Macedonia, the Macedonian Daily News.

According to Momirovski, who shared his experiences today with Balkanalysis.com, his team’s recent experiences in Greece were quite a departure from the norm. He states that he has visited Greece around 50 times in the past three years, and “never had any problems” before, even when filming in ethnically Macedonian areas.

What was so different, then, about the latest visit? The timing – just after the unveiling of another unpopular name ‘compromise’ solution from UN Mediator Matthew Nimitz – was not incidental. The story that drew the attention of the Macedonian journalists was a popular protest held by locals in Lofi against Greek military exercises in the area.

According to Momirovski, the military had entered the area two weeks ago but left after locals protested- as had been the case in areas of the Peloponnese and Thessaly. “However, it was only in this area [of Greek Macedonia] that the army actually returned,” he says. The resulting protests against the army’s comeback attempt resulted in injuries and arrests, and thus drew the attention of the Macedonian media.

Stating that his team had arrived around 11am on Monday morning, after having faithfully told the Greek border guards where they would be going, Momirovski adds that “we were not able to speak with any of the protesters, because we were told by locals that they had just gone to bed two hours before- they had been held by the police up until that time.”

Instead, the local villagers suggested the journalists go to two nearby villages where they could perhaps find more information.

After driving out of the village on a secondary road, however, the television team was followed by military vehicles and stopped by police who barked at them in Greek and detained them. While he notes that the police acted “very correctly with us” (i.e., no threats or beatings), Momirovski questions the reasonableness of their demands. “They told us that we cannot take photos or videos, because it is a border area, but could stay as ‘tourists,'” he states, noting however that when he inquired repeatedly three years ago with officials in Athens about obtaining permissions, with no response, the Greek Press Office in Skopje informed him that “no one will bother you” for filming in the area.

Later, at the border between Florina and Bitola, the journalists were then told they had to surrender all of their cameras and equipment. Of course, they refused. Greek officials tried to claim that the Macedonians were illegally filming military installations. When asked about this, Momirovski gives a pained look. “Would I be stupid enough to try and film a military installation? Besides, there were not any such installations near enough for us to film!”

Indeed, reminds one nationalist commentary website, MINA, “the journalist crews did not take photographs in the restricted area, as claimed by Greek authorities. Zero photographs were found during the check up of the journalists’  equipment.”

The frustrated police told the television crew that they could only return to the village under police escort. But when they returned to Lofi, they were then suddenly informed by the police that they had somehow “disturbed the locals” with their presence and, says Momirovski, “we were ordered to leave the country at once, and the police escorted us to the border.”

Why, in his opinion, were the Greek authorities so eager to prevent contact between the Macedonian film crew and the local villagers? The journalist gives a wry smile. “They didn’t want us talking to these Macedonians, as it would be very obvious [to all viewers] that there really are Macedonians in their country.”

On the other hand, Greek journalists visiting Macedonia face no such hassles, and regularly take extraordinary liberties- as was the case when Greek reporters burst into a secondary school near Strumica to see if the students were learning about Alexander the Great, etc. in their history books, so as to fabricate yet another international “scandal” in place of sound journalism.

The political chill between the two countries and frequent miscommunications have made media cooperation very difficult, even for well-meaning sorts like Momirovski. In April, when Greece infamously blocked Macedonia’s NATO membership at the alliance’s Bucharest Summit, Greek journalists flocked to Skopje, eager to ‘take the pulse’ of the population.

As the present author can recall, it proved very difficult to arrange interviews for them, however, because numerous local and foreign officials and public figures expressed misgivings over how any potential quotes or footage of themselves would be presented back in Greece. “We’ve been burned too many times by the Greeks,” was a typical answer, given by a diplomat who ruefully recalled having spoken for the Greek media in the past and then felt wrongly depicted in the end.

Through it all, Macedonian government officials are sanguine, believing that ugly incidents such as Monday’s journalist crackdown will ultimately play into their hands. A senior diplomat told Balkanalysis.com that “the Greeks continue with this kind of bad behavior, and the world is starting to see it€šÃ„¶ world opinion is now steadily moving towards our side.”

There is a silver lining in all this, at least for fans of black humor. Stung by the US government’s recent refusal to lift visa requirements for Greek citizens, the fastidiously hypocritical Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyiannis stated, “Greece has never accepted the logic of the exertion of pressure between allies.”

Or, as a forthright Greek intellectual told this author not long ago: “our government compensates for its inferiority complex vis-a-vis Turkey by intimidating its small and weak northern neighbor- that’s this ‘name issue’ for you!”

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What Would Pasic Do?

By David Binder*

Crucial decisions about Serbia’s territorial integrity and the direction of its foreign relations in the context of May 11 elections are reminders of the life and times of the prime minister and party leader Nikola Pasic (1845-1926).

While one might rightly dwell on Pasic’s fundamental contributions to the development of parliamentary democracy, it was his devotion to recovery of Serbian lands under foreign domination and his determination to resist imperialist designs that make him the touchstone of national integrity.

Pasic is relevant when one considers that the United States in its current pose as the “leader of the free world” is repeating patterns of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire’s actions toward Serbia in his day a century ago and for three previous decades: harsh economic sanctions, seizure of territory, bombardment of Belgrade and the wanton killing of Serbian civilians.

The parallels between what Serbia went through at the hands of Austria from 1878 to 1918 and its experiences during the last 18 years with the United States are astonishing (although the sequence of actions differed).

Early in his career Nikola Pasic realized that Austria, in the felicitous phrase of Alex Dragnich, his American biographer, was “determined to cow Serbia and if need be to crush her.”

In 1878, the year in which he was first elected to parliament in Belgrade, Austria abruptly occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina, which had a sizeable Serbian population. This caused anguish and humiliation in Serbia. Three decades later Vienna annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina outright, in 1908.

The contemporary equivalent was the disembowelment of Serbia by Washington and its NATO subordinates in 1999 followed by their fostering of an independent state in Kosovo.

There is also a parallel in the application of extreme economic sanctions as a means of putting pressure on Serbia to submit to policy demands. Vienna imposed a massive trade boycott from 1906 to 1911 which affected 90 percent of Serbian exports – mostly pork – and 60 percent of its imports. (Serbia surprisingly emerged with a stronger and more independent economy). Washington began applying ever stricter economic sanctions against Serbia in 1992, causing inflation to skyrocket and other economic injuries. It did not lift them until 2005.

Finally there is the parallel of bombarding Serbs. Austria was in such a hurry that it started shelling Belgrade on July 29, 1914, only a day after it declared war. A month later Vienna ‘s Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung declared – with a vulgar pun – “Serbien muss sterbien” – ( Serbia must perish).

Washington was more cautious, though no less imprudent, threatening military action against Serbia for nearly eight years before it launched NATO’s bombing campaign in March 1999.

The Austrian campaign was responsible for the bulk of Serbia ‘s 650,000 civilian war dead over 1,566 days of fighting. The civilian toll in 79 days of NATO bombing was estimated to be 500.

Throughout Austria’s endless bullying the response of Pasic was calm realism. Even under the direst threats from Vienna in the hours before World War I began he appears to have kept his temper and to respond in a conciliatory manner where he could.

He knew Serbia was militarily weak and lacked strong allies. He had made successful arms purchases from France and, in a meeting with the Tsar in Spring 1914, sought Russian protection and assistance.

Slobodan Milosevic sought assistance/protection for Serbia in the Pasic mold from Moscow with small success. Prime Minister Kostunica, President Tadic and the Radical leader, Tomislav Nikolic, have attained much greater results from lobbying Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

So, remembering that in his career he refused to kneel before those who dealt him reverses, how would Nikola Pasic evaluate the dangers and the opportunities facing Serbia today?

As the politician who engineered the return of Kosovo and other former territories to the homeland he would surely deplore the actions leading to the proclaimed statehood of the province – and equally deplore the American and European actors who performed their opera of alternating siren songs and dire threats. Doubtless he would oppose any Serbian politicians who endorsed or accepted them.

It is of course pure speculation, but I think Pasic would have appreciated the principled pragmatism of Vojislav Kostunica. He would also feel comfortable with Nikolic, who helped found the Serbian Radical Party, the descendent of Pasic’s own People’s Radical Party (besides, both men studied engineering).

Finally, I think Pasic would smile indulgently at critics, especially from abroad, who brand Kostunica or Nikolic – or himself – as “nationalists,” much less “ultra-nationalists.”

…………………………….

*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on May 6, 2008.

Apocalypse Now

By Christopher Deliso

“When they attack, what should I do first?” a young Serbian KPS police commander says. “Should I try to evacuate my children, or fight back? We are twenty, thirty thousand. They are two million.”

The likelihood or not of such an imagined massive assault from Albanians doesn’t matter here in Mitrovica, the city divided between ethnicities by the River Ibar, up in Kosovo’s uncompromising north.

What matters is that Serbs fear it could happen and the siege mentality that has set in — as seen in the nationalist graffiti, the stern billboard warning that “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword,’ the muscular young men watching warily from cafes — is as real and as thick as the tension in this grand old dilapidated post-Communist city that refuses to recognize, as with the vast majority of the world’s countries thus far, that a living country has been hacked out of the Serbian body. That the phrase Kosovo je Srbija (Kosovo is Serbia) has been consigned to the history books by Pristina’s unilateral declaration of independence on February 17 is bitterly resisted here in the north.

Indeed, ever since the “UDI’ (wary critics refer to the independence declaration only by the acronym now, one in the same category as the ICBM, to save their breath), the Serbs of several contiguous municipalities that border on Serbia proper have broken off cooperation with the Pristina government. The Serbs in the central and southern enclaves, though they have also protested regularly, have talked less tough, knowing that they are extremely vulnerable to an attack from all sides, should the Albanians wish to eliminate them.

One thing the Serbs have protested against vociferously was the April 4 return of Ramush Haradinaj from the Hague Tribunal. The former KLA leader and briefly, prime minister, Haradinaj was acquitted of all charges- at about the same time that former Hague prosecutor Carla Del Ponte disclosed in her memoir that the KLA had (possibly) been involved with trafficking the organs of kidnapped Serbs in 1999. Del Ponte had spent the lion’s share of her time prosecuting Serbs; as she could hardly be considered partial to them, the thinking went, the story must be true.

Of course, the Albanians have objected strenuously, while the Serbian and now Russian governments have called for a further investigation. For her part, Del Ponte was banned from promoting her book in Italy by a squeamish Swiss government, which has banished her to Argentina, to the position of ambassador. The secret to the mystery, Del Ponte intones, may lie in open graves in a small village in northern Albania.

Whether or not the story is true, for Kosovo Serbs, Haradinaj’s acquittal “sends a strong signal,” in the words of one experienced UN official in Kosovo. “They take it to mean that the KLA’s war has won legitimacy- and that they can act with impunity against Serbs, without fear of punishment.”

At the same time, Haradinaj aspires to an ever greater diplomatic reputation and for this reason, the official believes, the key Serbian monastery of Decani — deep in Haradinaj’s home turf in the west — is safe. “He wants to show that the international community can count on him to guarantee safety for minorities by solving their problems and protecting them- though sometimes he does seem to create local problems to offer himself as the one who can solve them.” Haradinaj’s sometimes caring, sometimes cruel behavior in his personal fiefdom is remarkably similar to the way medieval Albanian feudal lords operated there.

Indeed, Haradinaj’s return to Kosovo was greeted by celebrations in the Dukagjin area of western Kosovo, and was anticipated by billboards saying things (in English) like Welcome home! and Ramush, we need you now! Some Albanians in Pristina love him, some are more circumspect: “he doesn’t have a lot of support,” says one Albanian OSCE officer, claiming he will not make as tough an opposition to the government of Hashim Thaci as some among the international corps are hoping.

It is true. Some Western diplomats in Pristina have long been enraptured by Ramush. They gush about his “charisma” and “forthright attitude.” His closeness with former UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen was legendary. The now fired American deputy chief Steven Schook, a scathing German report later claimed, perceived his duties as “to get drunk once a week with Ramush Haradinaj.”

The welcoming committee apparently wanted to dress him for the role: in suit, glasses, backed by a shelf of books. In the grand images, the newly academic renaissance man of Kosovo looks not unlike Nicholas Cage. He could play him in the movie someday.

But forget about Ramush- back to Mitrovica. There are a lot of opinions, and a lot of questions, on the minds of Serbs and internationals alike. Still, life is fairly normal. You can buy burek at 6:30 AM, or a purple toy turtle, or do your banking on the river at the improbable Kosovsko Metohiska Banka AD Zvechan, almost 50 years old, a creation and a survivor of old Yugoslavia. In between the old apartment blocks rising from the north side, children play badminton, with some determination, on an asphalt court.

Some Serbs follow the time-honored national pressure release mechanism of taking recourse to black humor, as well as other things. A man drinking beer in a small shop with his old friend, the proprietor, declares that “there are no Macedonians, only Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians, they were the ones fighting the Balkan Wars!” The proprietor looks at his friend ruefully, with the long-suffering glance of someone who has been hearing it for years, when the former continues that there are no Montenegrins, either: “but he is from Montenegro!” he declares fiercely, pointing at the proprietor. “And he is a Serb!”

The humor is better. There are boys who are less than 20 and in the faculty of history there. They love America and love to make fun of Bush. But the (Bill) Clinton impersonations really have them roaring. They laugh when I joke thank you for not killing me and they go somewhere to enjoy themselves for another night that is still peaceful. Cafes and bars advertise visiting singers and, but for the palpable tension, you could be anywhere in dignified but decaying post-Communist Europe.

It could always be peaceful here. It depends on the decisions of individuals. Will they be rational ones? Will they be seen as fair? Many, and not only Serbs, are unnerved by the news reports speculating an attack is just around the corner. The nationalist political parties have them revved up too, ahead of elections. And Easter is soon. No one wants to believe in a conspiracy, but at the same time they know the Albanians are well-disciplined and, as officials noted four years ago, in the March riots, “nothing happens spontaneously in Kosovo.” If something “happens,” it will really happen.

A miniature earthquake came with the special police operation of March 17 — the anniversary of those riots — in which armed UN police from Pristina launched an assault on a courthouse that was being peacefully occupied by former court workers- most of them women. The workers had only been sitting in the hall and had stated they would be happy to come out. But someone in Pristina wanted to show the Serbs a lesson because, as another veteran UN official says, “they believe that the Serbs only respect force.”

The mission was a disaster. They arrested the court workers and paraded them, as a victorious Roman legion would have done with its prisoners of war, through the streets of South Mitrovica before bringing them to Pristina. They were later released.

The provocation was designed to infuriate the Serbs. The police could have simply opened the door, released the occupants, and gone home, a witness says, and everything might have been fine. The locals could have forgiven even such a heavy-handed show of force. “Yet the problems started when it became clear that they were going to be sent to Pristina.”

It didn’t help either that a local TV cameraman was on scene to stream the whole thing live. Crowds gathered. They threw rocks at first, before stronger weapons appeared. They released some of the prisoners before the terrified troops could escape. One of them was killed and many others wounded.

Damage control immediately set in, as it so often does in Kosovo. UNMIK in Pristina darkly disclosed that nefarious Serbian police elements from Belgrade had been involved. The foreign media ate it up, completely overlooking the leaked document out of UNMIK Mitrovica, which roundly ridiculed “Shock and Awe Two.” That report brought pressure that is still far from abating, and it looks like there will be a final standoff. The situation is grim, the future is brief. And so it goes.

Nevertheless everything could still work out. The KPS officer reminds that mixed-ethnic police units are working together and only a few days ago were able to break up a rock and gun fight between Serbs and Albanians in a nearby village. In the north there are Albanians, in one neighborhood of Mitrovica, and in outlying areas. There are not Serbs living the south of the city, though they seem free to quietly come and go. Meanwhile, the EU blindly and desperately moves to placate Serbia and influence its elections of May 11, offering sped-up agreements to keep the Radicals out. This is to the displeasure of EU officials in the Balkans, who believe Brussels is overlooking other areas of tension, such as Bosnia and Macedonia, with its “Serbia obsession.”

A problem here is that the EU is looking for agreements where agreements won’t matter. They believe controlling Serbia’s policy on Kosovo will help to lead to a final resolution of Kosovo’s status, or at least its ability to plod on, and that the new, hands-off EU mission will be able to start at the time the Kosovo constitution takes effect on June 15- “when pigs fly!” one European ambassador in Pristina cracks, on hearing that.

Actually, what the EU forgets is that Belgrade is not as important here as are the inhabitants themselves. The Kosovo Serbs are the crucial actors, and especially in the north. These people know that the Belgrade politicians cynically use them; they also don’t realistically expect that Russia will help them in a military emergency, despite the occasional poster of Putin on the streets of North Mitrovica. They have only themselves to rely on, though they have kept good relations with the UN in Mitrovica, which they perceive as being more fair and objective than the UN elsewhere in Kosovo.

They also know that life in Serbia proper, in a collective center or impoverished anonymity, would be even worse. And there would be a cut-off in the extra financial aid from Belgrade that some get for staying. The small pocket of Krajina Serbs — already once dislocated from their former homes in Croatia by the horrors of war — are among the most adamant.

Hashim Thaci has declared the intent to “assimilate” the Serbs and (here is the pot calling the kettle black) to punish the insolent behavior of this allegedly uncontrolled region based on organized crime. Like hell. The Serbs are not prepared to lose the one last place in Kosovo where they feel a measure of safety and normalcy. If they go, it will be after a massive attack such as the one they fear is coming at any time. If they stay, it will be because diplomacy will keep things cool, or because Pristina (and/or the internationals) cannot accept the body bags that would result.

The UN police guarding the famous Mitrovica bridge in the dark tonight in their vehicle are from Zimbabwe. “It’s all peaceful here,” they say, listening to reggae music and smiling. It’s probably a lot better than living in Zimbabwe right now.

Yet on the other side of the bridge, in the much calmer south of the city, international forces show more concern. Heavily-armed French soldiers, most just out of high school, bump into one another with their overburdened uniforms and machine guns. They eye everything warily, on the quiet street where a few people are having a drink. They seem to be guarding their pizza.

An American policeman, in ‘Mitro’ for almost four years now, laughs when asked what the situation will be like in the north. “Hell, it could end up like another Palestine up there,” he says. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

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Power Strategies Emerge Amidst Kosovo Turbulence

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- New information from regional intelligence sources, as well as open-source channels, indicates that cross-border militant activities on at least four fronts are among the new developments to watch in the aftermath of Kosovo’s independence declaration on February 17.

While world attention has focused mainly on the political and legalistic dimensions of the Kosovo Albanian government’s declared independence on February 17, other concurrent developments indicate that the main actors are taking steps to change the facts on the ground in the short term, or produce a long-term deterrent by hastily securing a presence across a widening geographical terrain.

In south Serbia’s Presevo Valley, home of a substantial Albanian population, the Serbian government has been boosting the presence of its security forces. According to Skopje daily Vecer, the Serbian army is completing Tsepotine Base, also known as the “Serbian Bondsteel’ (a reference to the US Camp Bondsteel not far across the border in Kosovo). Its strategic high position allows commanding views of Kosovo to the east and Macedonia, 5km to the south. Although planned for five years, various issues and disagreements between the ministries of defense and internal affairs slowed it down, reports Vecer. However, with the independence of Kosovo, completing the 35-hectare base has become a priority. The construction of such a large base in this strategic triangle indicates Serbia’s concern to keep the presently quiet Presevo Valley from blowing up as it did in 2000. Also, for Russia, reportedly interested in some sort of a military presence with the help of the Serbs, the location is again ideal. Vecer reports that Serbia currently has 16 smaller bases along the 92km-long administrative border with Kosovo.

New information from Kosovo itself also suggests present Russian cooperation, with the presence of small numbers of alleged Russian military trainers, in civilian garb, in the northern Kosovo towns of Leposavic and Mitrovica. Balkanalysis.com reported in late 2006 about the arrival here of Serbian special forces in civilian clothes, as a precaution in case of Albanian attacks. In 2006, it should be remembered, KFOR repopulated a disused base in the north of Kosovo, primarily to prevent Serbian troops from coming to the aid of their ethnic kin in case of any large-scale violence.

Two days after the Albanian’s independence declaration, Serb reservists and other agitators stormed and destroyed the nearby border post, gaining brief but important access into Kosovo before it was recovered by NATO troops. On February 27, Reuters reported that the Serb National Council in North Mitrovica had called for Russia “to return its KFOR contingent [in order to] to stabilize the situation in areas where Serbs are in the majority,” in the words of Council leader Milan Ivanovic. Although Russia had a small troop detachment in Kosovo from 1999-2003, it was deliberately not given its own sector equal to those of the other Great Powers, nor positioning in northern Kosovo. Now, it appears, Moscow will have in one way or another positioning in both northern Kosovo and the Presevo Valley.

Along with the attack on the UN border post in northern Kosovo on February 19, Serbian reservists have also made their presence felt on an eastern Kosovo border checkpoint. On February 25, rioting ensued at the Mutivode checkpoint, where 250 ex-serviceman from Medveda, KurˆšÃ–¬°umlija and Lebane clashed with Albanian KPS officers at the administrative boundary with Kosovo. The two sides hurled stones at one another, until the KPS used tear gas to dispel the Serbs. Strong winds, however, soon cleared the air for more conflict. “Tires were also set on fire, and the wind spread the blaze to both sides of the line,” reported B-92. “During the entire showdown between the demonstrators and the KPS, cordons of KFOR, on one, and Serbian MUP on the other side of the line, looked on without intervening.”

Serbs have begun other forms of symbolic protest within Kosovo. Serbian police employed within the KPS are threatening to trade in their uniforms for those of Serbia as soon as possible; on February 28, in line with Belgrade’s wide-ranging policies designed to reduce the ability of the self-declared state to function, Serbian KPS officers announced a general strike. The strike will create an interim period in which the officers can make a coordinated action. Even if the struggling UN mission, essentially ineffective north of the River Ibar, dismisses their rejection or tries to take stronger action, the departure of the token Serb presence would signal the end of any hopes for multi-ethnic law enforcement in Kosovo.

On February 27, KFOR sources indicated that British and Austro-German reserve battalions were being put on a heightened state of readiness and that the military mission was increasing its presence in the north. Some Albanians apparently intended to make preparations of their own. On February 21, the leader of the Albanian minority population of North Mitrovica, Adem Mripa, was arrested by KPS police. According to B-92, three Tromblon RPGs and several pieces of ammunition for sniper guns weapons were discovered in his house, in the ethnically mixed quarter of Bosniak Mahala. At the same time, “a bomb was found near a house owned by [Serbian resident] Jovan Ilic, which KFOR subsequently destroyed.” Serbs in the isolated enclaves of central and southern Kosovo are far more vulnerable. An eight-year-old girl was stoned in Ljiplan on February 23, Tanjug reported, while playing in her yard. Such attacks were a regular occurrence, the girl’s father told reporters.

The announced independence of Kosovo has taken on wider dimensions, however. Approximately 12 days ago, Balkanalysis.com has learned, Macedonia’s intelligence services became aware of the re-opening of training camps/rear bases in the Kukes area of northern Albania. These bases, located near the clan stronghold of Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, were where American and British military instructors trained Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers in safety for the 1998-99 campaign across the border in Kosovo. Reporters from Germany’s Spiegel in Kosovo, citing an Albanian paramilitary volunteer in the shadowy Albanian National Army, claim that the organization “takes orders from its head office in Tirana, Albania.” The ANA has recently stated its priority of monitoring the north of Kosovo and, if necessary, using force to prevent it from rejoining Serbia.

An expected complement to any Albanian irregular activity within Kosovo itself was likely to have been the paramilitary group destroyed in Macedonia’s “Operation Storm’ in November 2007. In the remote village of Brodec in the Sar Planina mountains above Tetovo, special police arrested or killed escaped criminals from Kosovo’s Dubrava Prison, and captured a sophisticated arsenal, sufficient for 650 men- for the moment at least neutralizing a major security threat before the anticipated secession decree in Kosovo to the north.

However, despite that coup, the Macedonian intelligence source stated that “very recently, we have received information that some small Albanian armed bands, 10-20 individuals or so in each, have re-entered Macedonian territory from Kosovo, in the Tetovo and Lipkovo regions- we are working on locating these groups before they can [become a threat]… however, the border is very easy to be crossed in those places, and they can easily escape from one side to the other when necessary.”

Kosovo: The View from Gracanica

By Nicky Gardner*

When the celebrated English travel writer Edith Durham arrived at the monastery at Gracanica one hundred years ago, she came to a place that had virtually no experience of the twentieth century. It is an episode that Durham recalls in her book High Albania. The incumbents, evidently horribly worried by Durham‘s unmarried condition, interrogated their visitor about the keystones of modernity: “they asked me of the great world beyond the Turkish frontiers; if it were true that there is a railway that goes underground and another on the roofs of houses; of electricity and motor cars.”

Gracanica is a Serbian enclave just a twenty-minute drive south of Prishtina. If, as seems now very likely, Kosovo’s imminent declaration of independence is recognized by some countries in the wider international community, then Prishtina will enjoy a new-found status as a capital city. A real achievement for a place that Edith Durham dismissed as “hopeless looking.”

In the great game of nation-building, there are inevitably winner and losers. With Albanian interests in the ascendant in Kosovo, after eight years of international administration of the province, the two dozen or so Serbian Orthodox nuns who live and work at Gracanica monastery are naturally apprehensive about the future. What place for them in a potentially independent Kosovo that will surely have no great affection for a Serbian minority? A small contingent of Swedish peace-keeping troops and a large supply of barbed wire protect the monastery and its grounds – which are home not just to the nuns but also to the local Serbian Orthodox bishop and his entourage.

The nuns pray, keep bees, paint icons and attend to the marvellous Byzantine frescos that adorn the interior of the beautiful five-domed monastic church. NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 shook the building severely, but happily the church took no direct hits. It is a deeply religious place, but much more besides. There is something of the Serbian soul in this monastery, and any decent settlement for Kosovo’s future really should include some accommodation for Serbian shrines and holy places that lie within the territory of the would-be independent republic. Kosovo’s religious art, be it at Gracanica or elsewhere in Kosovo, is one of Serbia‘s prize cultural assets, and so surely not something that will be given up lightly.

Rebecca West was another early visitor to Gracanica, when she travelled through Yugoslavia in 1937. West quickly appreciated the monastery’s importance to the Serbian diaspora. “It was as if Chartres Cathedral should stand alone on land that has been shorn of all that was France,” she wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

In the weeks ahead, as every spring, a great carpet of rich red peonies will slowly drape the meadows around Gracanica. For the nuns, as for many Serbs, the red meadows are potent reminders of Serbian blood spilt on the fields of Kosovo. Armies have fought before over Gracanica, and the Serbian embers in and around the monastery could so very easily be a flashpoint in the future. Gracanica is surely a place to watch in the weeks ahead.

..

* Nicky Gardner is editor of Hidden Europe Magazine, a unique publication that regularly reveals the lesser-known treasures of off-the-beaten-track places in Europe. The present article was originally published by Hidden Europe‘s newsletter on February 13, 2008.

Against the Odds, a Serbian Institute Protects World Heritage in Kosovo

By Christopher Deliso

When they report on Kosovo, foreign media bodies often reiterate that the province is the “spiritual cradle’ of Serbia- without going into much detail about what this means, or what it might entail for the situation there today.

And so, while the press has devoted considerable attention to the implications of Kosovo’s future political status, it has largely ignored the question of how the disputed province’s recent history is shaping its future social and cultural make-up- in the long run, arguably, even more important than politics.

A Telling Misrepresentation

After the NATO air war against Yugoslavia and installation of a UN caretaker administration in 1999, the status of Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox churches, the survival of which had already often required protection in the Albanian Muslim-dominated province, became extremely precarious. When explaining the Serbian people’s attachment to Kosovo, the Western media and governments frequently invoke the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Turks, while saying little of tangible heritage; the unstated implication is that the Serbs are deranged nostalgics whose attachment rests merely on folk legends. This tacit dismissal is useful for the Western media and governments, most of which argue that Kosovo’s Albanians deserve an independent state of their own.

Nothing is said, therefore, of the tangible remains of cultural heritage in Kosovo. Further, the value of this cultural heritage is never linked to that of Christianity in general, or to Europe or the world as a whole. Serbian sentiments are thus passed off as hopelessly irrational, the deluded dreams of people who ended up on the wrong side of history and can be forgotten without a twinge of conscience on the part of anyone.

Today, one organization is trying to change this misperception, while also carrying out vital work in the historical and cultural spheres. Mnemosyne, or the Center for Protection of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija, a Serbian NGO devoted to cultural preservation, historical research and book publishing, grew out of the war in 1999, after which Albanian mob and paramilitary attacks led to the large-scale exodus of Kosovo’s Serbs. Institutions that hadn’t been destroyed altogether by NATO bombs or Albanian irregulars were evacuated to inner Serbia. Luckily, this was the case with the Kosovo Ethnographic Museum, whose minders escaped with their exhibits. The museum now resides “in exile’ in central Belgrade and continues its work under the banner of the NGO.

Vital Work

Mirjana Menkovic, Mnemosyne’s director and senior curator of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade, presents the compelling story of Christian cultural heritage in Kosovo today. She and her colleagues are trying, despite the dire conditions, to continue historical research and publications on Serbia and Kosovo. The center’s books, such as the annotated presentation of Decani Monastery’s original charter in the original Old Church Slavonic and in translation, or the enormous historical account of Serbia during the First World War, to name just a couple of examples, are extraordinary historical documents and extremely well presented. Since they are not sold online and are very expensive to ship, however, researchers in other countries have to make extra efforts to acquire these works.

In most countries, an institute such as Mnemosyne could devote all its efforts to research; however, in Serbia the many problems deriving from the Kosovo situation make the work of these academics much more complicated. Mirjana Menkovic is a specialist in the study of traditional dress and costumes by training, not a lobbyist. Nevertheless, circumstances have forced her to devote considerable time and effort to alerting the international community about the severity of the situation in Kosovo.

We simply do not have access to historical and monastic sites in Kosovo, she attests. Since 1999, the only way Serbian academics can visit such places is under the heavy armed protection of KFOR troops.

Indeed, since the end of NATO’s air campaign in 1999, over 150 Serbian Orthodox churches, some of them seven centuries old, have been destroyed or seriously damaged by Albanians. While a few of the most important churches still survive, such as Decani Monastery in western Kosovo and Gracanica Monastery near Pristina, they only continue to do so because they are under the constant armed protection of NATO soldiers. Without this protection, recent history indicates, they may well have been destroyed by now.

While this armed deterrent is thus indispensable, the very fact that such widespread damage has occurred indicates a rather mixed legacy for NATO in Kosovo. Since the installation of the UN regime in August 1999, Mnemosyne’s research teams, sometimes accompanied by foreign experts, have gone into the field several times to conduct research on medieval churches- before, and sadly sometimes after, they’ve been destroyed. In all cases, they have required NATO protection to ensure that they will not come under attack by local Albanians. Former UNMIK chief Michael Steiner’s golden rule for Kosovo — “standards before status’ — has been conveniently forgotten in the Great Powers’ rush to reach greater geopolitical solutions.

balkanalysismenkovicandqueenofspain.jpg

Queen Sophia of Spain, right, presents Mirjana Menkovic with Mnemosyne’s 2006 heritage protection award from Europa Nostra

Creating a Nation

The international community, in other words, has tolerated and now seems to be rewarding the kind of deliberate cultural eradication from Kosovo’s Muslim Albanians as was previously practiced by Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime, when it blew up the Bamiyan Buddha, so as to remove any tangible traces of the country’s ancient Buddhist identity. In Kosovo as well, attests Menkovic, churches have not just been toppled: in some cases, they have been completely obliterated, with all traces of their existence thus vanishing. The purpose, she attests, is the denial of historical existence; this is politically useful too, as it expedites the denial of any Serbian right to the land. Once a church has been destroyed, she says, the Albanians remove all the stones to use for their own building works, and either use the site to dump their garbage, or smooth over the land so that you would never know anything had been there.

The historian recounts one experience in which, upon entering one village in southern Kosovo, her team’s KFOR escort was told by the Albanian locals that there had never been a church in their village- despite the fact that they themselves had participated in its destruction. But there was no trace left,’ she says, sadly recalling other instances of desecration, even of Serbian cemeteries. Indeed, while everyone in Europe is preserving Christian medieval heritage, it is only in Kosovo, site of some of the most important Christian heritage in Europe, that they refuse to do so- the animosity between Serbs and Albanians has been going on for centuries, and cannot just be blamed on Milosevic. Still, I don’t know how we can explain the Albanians’ irrational hatred, as seen in the destruction of churches and cemeteries.

The issue of collective denial has serious implications as a social and educative one for the future of Kosovo. The revisionist history of Kosovo already enforced by the Albanian civil administration, in which the abundant Serbian contributions to local history have been forgotten or at least strongly minimized, will become more complete as the nation-building project continues. Those Albanians who, in the above anecdote, denied the existence of any church in their village before the KFOR escort can be accused of lying; however, their grandchildren and then theirs will grow up honestly believing that no church had ever existed. Slowly, over time, the denial of any Christian heritage in Kosovo will become institutionalized to the point that one will be ridiculed and attacked for bringing it up. There are many scenarios by which a predominantly Muslim country becomes an exclusively Islamic one, and this is the most likely one for Kosovo. In Kosovo, it has begun with the deliberate lies of one generation, and will be ossified through the selective education, the mental cleansing, of subsequent ones.

Indeed, whether or not the majority of Albanians are, or ever will be interested in Islamic fundamentalism, the wholesale destruction of Kosovo’s Christian identity perfectly serves the interests of Wahhabi and other Islamic extremists from abroad who would like to impose their own intolerant belief systems on Kosovo society and who have even destroyed Ottoman Muslim shrines and built up hundreds of alien, Saudi-style mosques across the province.

International Recognition

The plight of Kosovo’s Orthodox heritage, especially after March 2004, caused alarm among the international community of historians and archaeologists who specialize in the Byzantine and mediaeval Serbian periods in the region. Serbian professional institutions like Mnemosyne intensified cooperation with like-minded bodies in European nations such as France, Russia, Greece and Bulgaria. Acknowledgement of the severity of the issue, grudgingly at times, came from human rights watchdogs like the Council of Europe.

However, Menkovic recalls a somewhat difficult relationship with the CoE in relation to working with the UN administration in Kosovo. From a number of colorful incidents, a similar theme emerges: that the two preferred symbolic gestures to actual results. They were frequently annoyed with us, she recalls, because we were not the typical NGO that collects money and does nothing- we actually work, and work professionally.

Nevertheless, the activities of Mnemosyne have been noted and received international praise. Since 2002, the Pan-European Federation for Heritage (Europa Nostra) has given awards to those organizations which have made the greatest achievements to heritage protection in Europe. In March 2006, Kosovo came into the spotlight when Mnemosyne was among those awarded, for its documentation of the province’s churches.

Institutional Flaws and Failures

The UN Mission in Kosovo has been frequently found guilty by journalists, watchdog groups, human rights advocates and governmental reports of having failed right across the full spectrum of its supposed competencies. It’s therefore little surprise that its execution in terms of cultural heritage have been found wanting as well.

The basic problem now, says Mirjana Menkovic, is that the UN’s mandated decentralization of power programme in Kosovo — supposedly, something that would empower endangered minorities such as the Serbs — has actually impeded efforts for cultural heritage preservation. By decentralizing power in this regard, the UN in Pristina has made it impossible for us to gain access to vital sites, she states. The most critical sites are those located in majority or exclusively Albanian-populated municipalities- the places that are least likely to assist requests from the Serbian side.

A series of reports have confirmed the charges of flawed implementation made by Mirjana Menkovic and others. As far back as January 18, 2001, a Council of Europe report entitled Study on the state of the cultural heritage in Kosovo. Part I noted that, despite the leading role and mandate of the United Nations in the province, “there is no global vision at the political, strategic and methodological level for the management of the cultural heritage. The absence of integration of fields, the administrative compartmentalisation inhibit the consideration of proper and effective reform process to be carried out within a transitional phase and organized over a middle term period.”

The report went on to note that “in the field of cultural heritage, the international community as a whole and each potential partner (NGOs or Gos) presently act outside any concerted or coordinated framework. Each stakeholder looks to immediate objectives defined in regards to specific interest, often far from the real needs on site.” Unfortunately, this tepid situation continues to exist today.

A large part of the problem can be attributed, according to an explanatory document from Mnemosyne, to poor decision-making from the very beginning of the UN mission. Despite the correct interpretation of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 1954), in reality, it was against the background of UNESCO’s inefficiency during 1999 and 2000 that the precedent was set when an interim UN mission took the right to interpret an international convention in such a way as to (quoting the Council of Europe report) “ignore the interpretation endorsed by the responsible institution in a situation when its implementation offers lasting evidence of the destruction of one country’s cultural heritage.'”

However, despite the widespread destruction and vandalism of the past eight years, it is still not too late to save Kosovo’s cultural heritage. According to detailed lists compiled by Mnemosyne, there are still over 120 cultural monuments, including churches, castles, cemeteries and traditional houses that have not yet been destroyed. With sounder policy and wiser implementation, such structures may yet live on to the benefit of future researchers, tourists and other visitors. Indeed, it has long been pointed out that when Serbian medieval monuments are destroyed, those who lose out the most will be local Albanians, who thus rob themselves of significant potential tourist attractions- not particularly wise in a country with an unemployment rate of around 60 percent.

In the end, the key question becomes whether the foreign media, governments and publics will see more than rhetoric and nostalgia in the Serbian position. Among those trying to highlight this necessity is Mnemosyne, which avows that the spiritual significance of Kosovo and its holy places for the Serbs must not be understood as an anachronism or a non-European obsession with the past — it must be respected as a right of each people to maintain its traditions contributing to the preservation of cultural diversity and intangible heritage.” The future will show whether Europe’s emerging Muslim state, and the Western powers backing it, subscribe to these universal values.

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The Language Game of Kosovo Diplomacy

By Nikolas Rajkovic*

Three key words have animated the policy-speak on Kosovo to date: “negotiation’, “compromise’ and “solution.’ These terms seem uncontroversial in their literal sense and have been accepted by the parties and the “Troika’ powers (the US, EU and Russia) without dispute. As such, the verbal landscape has been marked by the strategic use of this vocabulary. Yet the professed failure of Kosovo “status talks’ now suggests a profound disconnect between stated and actual meaning. The objective here is to critically examine how these terms have been used in diplomatic practice, with a view to revealing the contradictions between rhetoric and action which have fed this latest Balkan crisis.

Recent “Troika’ talks were grounded on a commitment to negotiation. Washington, Brussels and Moscow agreed that a lasting and sustainable solution was best attained through negotiated consent. However with the proclaimed failure of negotiations, that commitment is wavering in Washington and some European capitals due to the alleged inability of Belgrade and Pristina to make mutual concessions. However, does this depiction place blame on the wrong doorstep?An affirmative answer points to how Washington scuttled negotiations by announcing its intention to recognize Kosovo “independence’ in the event that “Troika’ talks failed. This created the bad faith incentive for Pristina to thwart negotiations and run out the clock until December 10. The “Troika’ negotiations existed in name only.

This point regarding spoiled negotiations brings us to the next term, compromise, and its similar misuse. The most commonly stated storyline is that Belgrade and Pristina failed to compromise. However, does this account match actual negotiating behaviour as seen? When one examines the conduct of “Troika’ negotiations between June and today, a noticeable pattern emerges: Belgrade offered genuine models of far-reaching autonomy (e.g. Hong Kong, the Aland Islands), while Pristina merely reiterated “independence.’ Indeed, Pristina did present a post-independence “treaty of friendship,’ but was that a bona fide compromise? In fact, at a recent summit in Brussels, outgoing Kosovo first minister Agim Ceku made no secret of his unwillingness to compromise when he hailed Kosovo independence as the “most predictable, unsurprising and unremarkable development in south-eastern Europe for generations.”

Thus we come to the final term — solution — and the current efforts to conflate its meaning with independence. The narrative is as follows: failed negotiations and inadequate compromise make independence the only viable solution for European policy-makers. The first problem with this claim is procedural; it runs afoul of the clean hands rule, which states that the Kosovo Albanians should not be allowed to profit from their own misdemeanour of failing to negotiate and compromise in good faith. A unilateral, one-sided statement of independence is perilous in that it provokes foreseeable and dire consequences. Here independence advocates should be taken to task for their ostrich-like disclaimers that they don’t know what will happen after independence is declared.

First, the historical record is unequivocal: defiant secession in most of the ex-Yugoslav republics has produced a series of bloody inter-ethnic wars. Second, one-sided independence is likely to prompt Kosovo’s Serbian-controlled north to “secede’ and rejoin Serbia proper, prompting attacks from the unofficial Albanian National Army and ensuing reactions from Kosovo Serbs. Third, Kosovo secession hands the ultimate Christmas gift to the populist Serbian Radical Party and secessionist forces within neighbouring Bosnia and Macedonia. Finally, the unilateral dismemberment of Serbia would fundamentally change the rules of sovereignty which have maintained precarious stability in the Western Balkans over the past 12 years. Plainly stated, Kosovo independence would herald that “all bets are off’ in the Balkans and elsewhere.

In closing, diplomacy on Kosovo has produced feats of rhetoric unmatched in actual practice. The present crisis on Europe’s doorstep is attributable not to failed negotiations but rather disingenuous diplomacy that has failed to make the ethnic parties ultimately responsible for their future. Such a result can only happen when the “Troika’ powers unanimously and resolutely declare that a true “solution’ only rests in genuine negotiation and real compromise; and anything less is poor fiction. The political end-game which must be sought has no home in the zero-sum theatrics of independence, but rather must be found in the politics of good and responsible government, bearing the flag of prudence and caution.

………………………………..

*Nikolas Rajkovic is a political sciences researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy.

Kosovo auf Deutsch

By David Binder

Forget about status negotiations for a moment. The near-term outlook for Kosovo is unalterably grim: an economy stuck in misery; a bursting population of young people with “criminality as the sole career choice;” an insupportably high birthrate; a society imbued with corruption and a state dominated by organized crime figures.

These are the conclusions of “Operationalizing of the Security Sector Reform in the Western Balkans,” a 124-page investigation by the Institute for European Policy commissioned by the German Bundeswehr and issued last January. This month the text turned up on a weblog. It is labeled “solely for internal use.” Provided one can plow through the appallingly dense Amtsdeutsch – “German officialese” – that is already evident in the ponderous title, a reader is rewarded with sharp insights about Kosovo.

Occasionally a flicker of human frustration with the intractability of Kosovo’s people appears in the stolid German text. That reminded me of an encounter 44 years ago in the fly-specked cafeteria of Pristina’s Kosovski Bozur Hotel, occupied by a lone guest drinking a beer. He introduced himself as an engineer from Germany.

What was he doing here?” I inquired. “Ich verbloede,” he replied – “I am stupefying myself.” – (or, I am making myself stupid).

In this text, the authors make clear that Germany’s interest in Kosovo rests on its “geographic proximity” and its roles as the most important supplier of troops and provider of money for the province. Failure would mean “incalculable risks for future foreign and security policy” of the Federal Republic. The authors point out a “grotesque denial of reality by the international community” about Kosovo, coupling that with the warning of “a new wave of unrest that could greatly exceed the level of escalation seen up to now.”

The institute authors, Mathias Jopp and Sammi Sandawi, spent six months interviewing 70 experts and mining current literature on Kosovo in preparing the study. In their analysis the political unrest and guerrilla fighting of the 1990s led to basic changes which they call a “turnabout in Kosovo-Albanian social structures.” The result is a “civil war society in which those inclined to violence, ill-educated and easily influenced people could make huge social leaps in a rapidly constructed soldateska.”

“It is a Mafia society” based on “capture of the state” by criminal elements. (“State capture” is a term coined in 2000 by a group of World Bank analysts to describe countries where government structures have been seized by corrupt financial oligarchies. This study applied the term to Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic, by way of his cigarette smuggling and to Slovenia, with the arms smuggling conducted by Janez Jansa). In Kosovo, it says, “There is a need for thorough change of the elite.”

In the authors’ definition, Kosovan organized crime “consists of multimillion-Euro organizations with guerrilla experience and espionage expertise.” They quote a German intelligence service report of “closest ties between leading political decision makers and the dominant criminal class” and name Ramush Haradinaj, HashimThaci and Xhavit Haliti as compromised leaders who are “internally protected by parliamentary immunity and abroad by international law.” They scornfully quote the UNMIK chief from 2004-2006, Soeren Jessen Petersen, calling Haradinaj “a close and personal friend.” UNMIK, they add “is in many respects an element
of the local problem scene.”

They cite its failure to improve Kosovo’s energy supply, and “notable cases of corruption that have led to alienation from Kosovo public and to a hostile picture of a colonialist administration.” They describe both UNMIK and KFOR as infiltrated by agents of organized crime who forewarn their ringleaders of any impending raids. “The majority of criminal incidents do not become public because of fear of reprisals.

Among the negative findings listed are:

The justice system’s 40,000 uncompleted criminal cases;

The paucity of corruption-crime investigations (10-15 annually);
The province’s 400 gas stations (where 150 would suffice), many of which serve as fronts for brothels and money-changing depots;

A Kosovo Police Service “dominated by fear, corruption and incompetence”;

The study sharply criticizes the United States for “abetting the escape of criminals” in Kosovo as well as “preventing European investigators from working.” This has made Americans “vulnerable to blackmail.” It notes “secret CIA detention centers” at Camp Bondsteel and assails American military training for Kosovo (Albanian) police by Dyncorp, authorized by the Pentagon.

In an aside, it quotes one unidentified official as saying of the American who is deputy chief of UNMIK, “The main task of Steve Schook is to get drunk once a week with Ramush Haradinaj.”

Concerning the crime scene the authors conclude that “with resolution of the status issue and the successive withdrawal of international forces the criminal figures will come closer than ever to their goal of total control of Kosovo.”

Among the dismal findings of the German study are those on the economy:

Sinking remission of money from Kosovans working abroad, a primary source of income for many Kosovo families, pegged now at 560 million euros per annum;

Some 88 percent of the land now in private ownership, meaning ever more sub dividing of plots, usually among brothers, leading to less and less efficient agriculture;

Proliferation of NGOs – now numbering 2,400 – the great bulk of which exist for shady purposes;

A hostile climate for foreign investors, frightened by political instability and the power of mafia structures.

A central issue in Kosovo is an “inexhaustible supply of young people without a future and therefore ready for violence,” the study says. The only remedy for dealing with this “youth bulge” is to open northern Europe’s gates to young Kosovans seeking jobs, the authors say.

In anticipation of a transfer of oversight from the UN to the European Union, the authors warn: “the EU is in danger of following too strongly in the wake of a failed UN and to disintegrate under the inherited burden unless they make an open break with practices and methods of UNMIK.” One of the experts they interviewed put it more bluntly: “the EU is inheriting from UNMIK a fireworks store filled with pyromaniacs.”

In the estimate of the authors neither NATO nor the EU or UN appear capable of self examination, much less self-criticism. The authors draw a picture of self-satisfied incompetents in all international organizations dealing with Kosovo.

However, in their depiction, Kosovans appear equally beholden to legend – in their case of historic exploitation – such that if they finally achieve independence, all will suddenly be well. In the past Kosovans could and did always blame somebody else for their troubles: Ottomans, Yugoslavs, Serbs. Now they have begun to blame UNMIK. But what will happen if they have only themselves to blame?

…………………………..

*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on July 16, 2007.

Macedonian Special Police Eliminate Armed Albanian Group with Paramilitary, Wahhabi Ties, Seizing Massive Arsenal

Special Report by Balkanalysis.com Director Christopher Deliso

At around 5am on 7 November, an ethnically-mixed elite police force in Macedonia raided the remote, Albanian-populated village of Brodec. Their target: a group of vigilantes, led by a known Wahhabi extremist and a paramilitary partner who had been mysteriously sprung from jail in Kosovo in August. It would be the single biggest success to date for beleaguered Macedonia, chronically beset by troublemaking from Kosovo-based insurgents working in alliance with local radicals.

Unlike various similar operations carried out by the previous two Macedonian governments since 2001, innocent bystanders were not caught in the crossfire and there was no large-scale property destruction. The smooth handling of the operation won the interior ministry praise from foreign officials such as Victoria Nuland, US ambassador to NATO, who stated, “we were informed on the operation. We were especially impressed by the fact that multi-ethnic police forces carried out the tasks.”

Indeed, the operation — grandiosely dubbed “Mountain Storm,’ after the Sar Planina Mountain range where the villages of Brodec, Vejce and Vesela are located — was very successful, with six fugitives, including the Wahhabi ringleader, Ramadan Shiti, being killed, and 13 other terrorists captured. In the dramatic gun battle that ensued, only one policeman was injured. However, one of the most wanted men — Lirim Jakupi, self-proclaimed “Commander Nazi’ — escaped. Criminal charges on grounds of terrorism have been submitted against all 17 members of the group, as well as the four remaining fugitives, thought to be led by Jakupi.

Although the interior ministry at first stated officially that the killed and captured men were mere “criminals,’ the astonishingly large variety of weapons seized — enough for waging a small war — in houses and fields near Brodec belied that assertion. So did the fact that some, such as leader Shiti, have previously been linked with the Saudi-backed Wahhabi Muslim sect’s attempts to take control of the Islamic communities in Macedonia and Kosovo. Indeed, during the operation, Ramadan Shiti reportedly died as a suicide bomber, igniting the grenade he was carrying when surrounded by police.

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Police display confiscated weaponry in Skopje, Nov. 9 (photo credit: MIA)

Ready for War

Macedonia‘s Minister of Interior, Gordana Jankuloska, stated for media on 9 November that the Brodec haul was “the largest amount of [heavy] weaponry” seized thus far” in Macedonia. The arsenal included everything from sniper rifles, assault rifles, dynamite, hand grenades, mortars and thousands of bullets to artillery pieces, RPG launchers and laser-guided anti-aircraft missiles. The cache was deemed “sufficient to equip a battalion of 650 soldiers.”

Indeed, black nationalist paramilitary uniforms were also found (the gang had been allegedly involved in conducting nighttime uniformed roadblocks in recent weeks in the area). The impressive haul, which also included nationalist booklets and weaponry manuals, was laid out for journalists and military attaches to inspect at police barracks in the western Skopje suburb of Gjorce Petrov on 9 November.

Other clear indications of the long-term war plans of the militant group became apparent when television crews showed the professional-standard bunkers dug into the mountainside above the village, stocked with sleeping bags, large bags of onions and potatoes, and other rations. The structures even included improvised shower cabins and beds. Both cars and horses had been used to bring in supplies from the nearby mountain border with Kosovo, as well as from Tetovo and other places. According to retired Army Col. Blagoja Markovski, now with the Balkan Security Forum, “the [terrorists] came in this region two or three months ago… with a plan, and were preparing for military actions.”

Countdown to Action

The operation followed several weeks of tracking the fugitives, who were moving “throughout the tri-border area” between Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, aided by a large network of safe houses, stated one ranking military intelligence officer for Balkanalysis.com. However, the authorities also had their own network of local informers. “We contributed information from our side to the police, as did the Serbian government and KFOR [in Kosovo].” Finally, the special police unit, composed of officers of both Macedonian and Albanian ethnicities, pounced on Brodec in the early hours, sealing off the village and setting up checkpoints on access roads. The plans were finalized after the green light was given by US Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic and EU Special Representative Erwan Fouere, joked the officer- “our real “president’ and “prime minister.'”

The Operation Unfolds

According to published accounts quoting police participants, the militants began firing first, forcing the police to shoot back. The battle took place in and around several houses in the village, as well as the Brodec mosque, which was being used as an arsenal by the gang. When the shooters were killed, police were able to scour the adjoining territory, discovering more arms caches and the bunkers, set in strategic places on the mountainside, with commanding views of the village and Tetovo beneath.

According to Dnevnik on 10 November, the “tactically flawless” operation unfolded from early in the morning, with a fierce gun battle raging until about 2pm, spilling into the village’s narrow streets. Later, “the bodies of two of the six killed criminals were found above the village, at the dirt road towards Vesala “with the antiaircraft machine guns above the village and they tried to escape.”

Another four people, including Ramadan Shiti, were killed in Brodec. One fugitive who was operating a rocket launcher was taken out by a police sniper in the center of the village. Ramadan Shiti, himself “armed with a rocket launcher, automatic rifle and other weaponry, was killed by a bomb in the basement from where he was shooting. In another room in the same building, two more people were found dead, armed with rocket launchers and automatic rifles. They were all wearing military uniforms.”

According to the newspaper, the seized weapons, of Chinese, Yugoslav and Russia origins (among other countries) included three mortars, two cannons, 263 mortar grenades, a FAGOT armor-penetrating rocket system, two OSA rocket launchers, an MGL 6 bazooka, 58 hand grenades, 132 bazooka grenades, 29 anti-tank mines, 61 anti-infantry mines, four sniper rifles, 10 automatic rifles, four anti-aircraft rocket launchers, 9 Zolja bazookas, six RPG launchers, 31 explosive charges, large amounts of ammunition and other equipment.

Individuals killed in the operation included Hisni Ameti, also known as “Commander Cevaj,’ and Imer Gavazi (42), both from Kosovo; Bekim Memeti (21) from Tetovo; Ferat Sahini (20) and Fidan Fejzulahu (24), both from Brodec; and Ramadan Shiti (24), from Kosovo. Along with Lirim Jakupi, those still on the run include Albanian citizen Fatos Tosi, Amir Sopa (“Commander Golema Drenica”) from Kosovo, and Metim Islami (“Commander Talibani”).

Shiti had already escaped twice from prison, once in Macedonia and once in Kosovo, and was wanted as an accomplice in the murder of a Skopje taxi driver and for participating in a bomb attack on the Bit Pazar police station in Skopje in July 2005.

However, while Shiti may be dead, according to Macedonian intelligence sources surveyed by Balkanalysis.com, some of his major accomplices in those crimes are still at work in Kosovo, developing the growth of radical Islamist cells there, with support from Saudi and other Arab countries channeling funds via diaspora Albanian radicals in Milan, Italy as well as Austria and Bosnia.

The Macedonian government claimed that the August “escape’ from Dubrava Prison of Shiti, Jakupi and co. was not a matter of luck, but done purposefully by “certain structures’ eager to provoke unrest to influence the Kosovo status process around the scheduled conclusion of “final’ negotiations between Serbs and Albanians on 10 December. That said, the bold, professional and unexpected operation was a sign of how far the country has come since the 2001 war, when unnecessary collateral damage and widespread leaks precluded efficient operations.

The present raid was very impressive, thus, in that it involved multi-ethnic police force, operating in hostile and remote territory, and in that it unfolded amidst total secrecy. The fact that innocent bystanders were not affected also speaks well for the interior ministry’s newfound professionalism; this outcome is crucial as critics such as the opposition DUI party of former NLA boss Ali Ahmeti cannot claim it to have been an attack on the Albanian people, and thus use it to provoke knock-on violence.

Future Developments

On 9 November, Macedonian Intelligence Agency Director Viktor Dimovski was quoted as stating that Macedonia “is not under any immediate threat” of attacks from abroad following Operation Mountain Storm. However, rumblings from Kosovo and from NLA war veterans indicate that new provocations may occur. A shadowy, Tetovo-based separatist organization, calling itself the Political-Military Council of the KLA, claimed that the Jakupi-Shiti group was linked to them, and swore it would defend Albanian “national honor” through violence.

The still unknown organization claims that it has created paramilitary groups allegedly “to protect the endangered Albanian people, and every inch of Albanian territory.” In a statement relayed by Serbia’s B92, the group vows that “there can be no stable political or military solution, peace or stability in the turbulent Balkans without respect and implementation of a decision taken at a conference in Bujan for self-determination (Kosovo, and unification with Albania), and for institution of a military oath for all three liberation armies — Kosovo, Eastern Kosovo (Preševo, Bujanovac, Medvedja), and Macedonia.”

For his part, the better known local radical Xhezair Shaqiri (“Commander Hoxha”) threatened to “square accounts” with the Interior Ministry, reported Sitel Television, stating “we will wait for the police wherever they come.” Unlike the obscure “Political-Military Council,” Commander Hoxha begged ignorance of the culprits in Brodec shootout.
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