During my recent visit to Kosovo I worked as a supervisor for the municipal elections. I took this job as an opportunity to revisit Kosovo after more than a year away.
For descriptions of my past visits to Kosovo (March 1998 and July 1999), see my journal web site.
I have changed people's names in this journal to protect their privacy.
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Sunday, October 22
I arrived in Ohrid, Macedonia to participate in training by OSCE to be an election supervisor on the first elections in Kosovo since the withdrawal of the Serbian regime. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) runs elections in various "countries in reconstruction" in Eastern Europe. I had previously worked in three such elections in Bosnia.
The elections scheduled for October 28th were to establish municipal councils in all 30 - odd municipalities in Kosovo. However, most Serbs had refused to participate, and there were no Serb candidates. The removal of Milosevic as president of Yugoslavia may have made some difference, but this happened long after the deadline to declare candidacy had passed. So it was to be for the most part a mono-ethnic election. Bernard Kouchner, French diplomat and head of the international protectorate governing Kosovo, has said that he will incorporate Serb representatives into the new municipal governments where applicable.
At the fine hotel on beautiful Lake Ohrid I ran into a few friends from past elections in Bosnia - notably, some Polish friends with whom I had had a good time in Serb Sarajevo in 1997. There were also many Spaniards, French, Romanians, Dutch, and British. The largest contingent was American - around 150 out of the 1200 total.
The training was divided into two main parts: practical considerations, and technicalities of the voting. Our job was to be an administrative one, not political: to learn the rules of the voting procedure and to ensure that they were followed. Corresponding to the two parts of the training, our responsibilities were a) to stay healthy, and b) to run the elections in cooperation with a local polling station committee.
A day and a half was spent on the first part, most of which was a formality and a waste of time. How to avoid stepping on a mine (there have been 500 casualties since June 1999), how to avoid getting a cold, how to get out of a hostile situation. All important things that weren't going to happen. How to avoid stepping on a mine? Don't take walks in fields - stay on the pavement. The real threat is from traffic, because many drivers are the victims of testosterone poisoning, which impairs their ability to drive carefully.
How to avoid getting a cold? Wash your hands. (Don't cover your mouth when you sneeze though, because then you would pass germs on to the many people you will be shaking hands with in the next week.) Also, change your socks occasionally, and don't smoke or drink coffee or alcohol. We learned all these things. We also learned to use the hand-held radios, which in my previous experience had never worked.
One free afternoon I went into Ohrid town, one of the most beautiful places in former Yugoslavia. With a few other supervisors I walked through the old Turkish section with its overhanging houses and smooth-worn paving stones, past a couple of ancient Orthodox churches with wood-carved fronts, and out along the lake. Across this huge lake you see Albania in the distance. The shorefront leads to a promontory where the little church of Sveti Jovan Kaneo was built in the 13th century. The weather was perfect for sitting on a bench there and looking back at the town or across at Sveti Naum monastery.
In the technical part of the training we learned about identifying voters. The Kosovo voters' list has an innovation: many, though not all, registrants were photographed. This should be helpful, as many Albanians were deprived of their identification documents last year when they were expelled from Kosovo by the Serbs. We learned who could vote and who may not, who was an exception, what were the exceptions to the exceptions, and what to do in case there was an irate voter who would not leave the polling station. By the end of the third day all the new supervisors, who hadn't already learned to ignore the contradictions and minutiae, were thoroughly confused. The Organization for Spreading Confusion in Europe concluded another training session.
In the evenings the foolhardy studied the rules, the rest associated with their international friends. One of the Poles told me that the Russian Duma had launched a suggestion that the United States elections be monitored internationally.
The Poles and I were involved in a discussion as to the merits of the OSCE organizing an election when it was clear that an important minority of the population was not going to participate, rendering it a less than "free and fair" election. My conclusion was that it was better to start building a mono-ethnic democracy now, rather than to tolerate multi-ethnic chaos by waiting until the Serbs (now around 5% of the electorate) were willing to participate. Nothing short of secession of the part of Kosovo they control, and re-attachment of that part to Serbia (or re-occupation of all of Kosovo by Serbia) was going to make most of them want to participate in an election.
This problem will take a long time to solve, and Kosovo needs to begin creating an indigenous administration, if it is to grow out of being a protectorate. This will in any case require a generation or more.
For the most part, the Albanians and Serbs do not want to live together. The Serbs are heavily indoctrinated to believe that the separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia was fomented by "terrorists," while the Albanians are so resentful of the atrocities that were perpetrated on them, not to mention the ten years of occupation that preceded, that they are not willing to consider any kind of political cooperation with Serbs or Serbia. No Albanian party is willing to consider anything less than full independence; this is unanimous. The "autonomy" promoted by some international officials and by U.N. resolution 1244 is an unacceptable concept.
Thursday, October 26: INTO KOSOVO
An Austrian border guard waved our van into the province. No passport stamp was necessary. Immediately we saw graffiti: "PDK Thaci." Thaci was a political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or UCK), who formed the PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo) last year after the Serb regime was driven out. His party is not too fondly regarded by the international community, having come to represent the forces of chaos and gangsterism that prevailed for a time after the end of the Serbian occupation. This is an over simplification, however. Some people in the KLA/PDK were gangsters, and some were good people. And some gangsters or petty criminals had nothing to do with the PDK.
We stopped to drop some supervisors off in Ferizaj, the nearest town of any size to the border. The last time I was in Ferizaj was for lunch in 1998, on the day that the Serb authorities were deporting me and my colleagues. Ferizaj is a busy place, with much rebuilding going on, and few destroyed houses in evidence. Informative posters about the election were visible everywhere.
We arrived in Suhareka, a small town a half hour north of Prizren in the southern sector, patrolled by German KFOR (the U.N.-coordinated international Kosovo Force) soldiers. This is one of the quieter areas of Kosovo, with few incidents and fewer Serbs. We had a briefing with OSCE election officers, who told us that the area was predominantly oriented towards the LDK (party of Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova). They also told us that our radio handsets were not working.
The LDK is a more moderate, businesslike party, established by Rugova ten years ago. Rugova, a pacifist, was vastly popular among Albanians for his stance of resistance to the Serb occupation. He has likewise been very well regarded among international officials for his pacifism. Around 1997 his popularity dropped precipitously as Albanians, losing patience with the torments of the occupation, saw Rugova as too passive.
By the time I arrived in Kosovo in the spring of 1998, ordinary Albanians were fed up with Rugova and were leaning towards the KLA, which had surfaced in the previous year. The KLA's popularity soared, naturally, during the ensuing year's war with the Serbs. When I returned last year, right after the Serbian regime withdrew, their popularity was at its height. Posters of warriors lined the walls, and heroic music was being played on the streets.
However, within a few months the KLA, or its new party the PDK, lost much popularity and the LDK regained. This is rather remarkable considering the storm the Albanians had just weathered. But there was much resentment from within Albanian society due to a perception of corruption and privilege on the part of the new party, at a time when ordinary Albanians were suffering homelessness and despair at the loss of their relatives. At this point Rugova appeared to them as a more civilized and responsible leader.
Some Albanians have told me that the PDK does not really represent the KLA fighters, but only exploits their mythology. "The real soldiers are dead," someone said. A friend who worked with a news service during the war told me, "I knew KLA fighters, and I don't recognize any of these people who are calling themselves KLA now."
Suhareka was a hot spot during the war. Several horrendous massacres took place there. One family was massacred in the very house that has since been repaired and is now the OSCE field office, where we were meeting. In this house and a nearby pizzeria, the Berisha extended family lost over 50 members on March 26 of 1999.
An OSCE elections officer told us that the Albanian parties, regardless of their differences, converge on the issue of independence. He said, "The outcome on that issue is open - no one knows the outcome." No one, that is, except all Albanians.
There are eight political parties that were competing, as well as two independent candidates. The OSCE required a quota of women candidates on each party's list. This minimum quota was fulfilled, but not exceeded.
The LDK was expected to receive 90% of the vote in Suhareka municipality. Their campaign rally was more than four times large as the PDK rally. There were no serious inter-party conflicts here. However, in other parts of Kosovo both PDK and LDK leaders were killed.
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I met my driver Veton, and my interpreter Agron. We sat and talked over a warm drink. Young Agron is a cousin of the Berisha family who were killed. He is a student, and was away in Prishtina during the NATO bombing. His family survived by escaping to Albania, but his house was looted and destroyed by the Serbs. Now one floor has been repaired and made livable. He told me that he likes Rugova, but that any candidate would be acceptable, as long as he is Albanian.
Veton is a hot volleyball player. In his mid-thirties (by my estimation), he spent two years in Serbian-run jails. He was in Istok and Lipljan, and was tortured with electricity for four days in Prizren. During the bombing the Serbs removed him to Nis, in Serbia. Afterwards his family paid 15,000 DM to get him out. He is now paying that off.
As we were sitting, Agron asked me if I wanted to speak Serbian with Veton, who knew very little English. I said, "Only if he wants to." Agron asked him, and he didn't want to. This was at a table in front of a kafana, a very public place. Most Albanians don't want to hear the Serbian language anymore.
Agron took me around the center of Suhareka. There are many new roofs; much repair is going on. A few wrecked houses still stand here and there, overgrown by weeds. Kafanas and shops abound, selling machine-made carpets, produce, dry goods. People were out walking in the sunny weather. The cars have license plates with KS on them, a step towards organization after last year, when Serb police confiscated people's license plates as they were fleeing Kosovo. The graffiti was predominantly pro-LDK.
We visited a cemetery for people who had been killed during the war. It was in a park, on the edge of some woods. Large wreaths stood by the mounds of freshly turned earth. It reminded me of a similar sad graveyard in Tuzla, Bosnia.
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We 41 supervisors for this area stayed at the Austrian KFOR base just outside of town. Many of the supervisors looked very Beltway. If they told me, "I'm from Virginia," I understood that they were State Department employees.
I can't remember when I've seen someplace as orderly as the Austrian base. You couldn't find a cigarette butt on the ground. Every other barracks porch post held a bazooka mortar case, now serving as an ash tray. Friendly German-speaking soldiers, not quite as buff as Arnold Schwartzenegger, always greet you, "Guten tag." The dining hall offered 15 kinds of bread, ten kinds of salad, and a meat dish. No dessert, but lots of fruit. Austrians, Swiss, and a few Slovaks sat with their automatic rifles on the floor or hung over their backs.
On the day before the elections we received our poll kits and visited our stations. The OSCE had previously told us to request the removal of any Albanian flag spotted around a polling station - a rule I was preparing to ignore. But today we learned that the OSCE had decided we should allow Albanian flags. The OSCE prevented a lot of trouble by harmonizing their rules with my opinions.
Saturday the 28th of October, we got up at 4:00 a.m. to prepare for the elections. In the mess hall I heard early results: Yanks beat the Mets, 4:1. The Beltways had on their zoot suits; I wore my brown jeans and finest t-shirt. We picked up the blank ballots at the field office and were at our polling stations by 6:00. On the way, Agron told me that a PDK member had threatened a polling station committee member at another station, saying that if he participated in the elections, he would be killed. I thanked Agron for sharing this information with me.
I set up the station with my committee, making sure there was no party propaganda nearby, and we were ready to roll by 7:00. The electricity was working. There was already a crowd of about fifty voters outside, and it was just getting light.
The voting procedure went smoothly. There were no absentee voters and very few problems with identification in this village. It was hard work; voters arrived continuously until almost 4:00 p.m. We checked their identification, sprayed their fingers with ultraviolet spray so they couldn't vote twice, stamped their ballots, and they voted. Around 20% of the voters could not read, and so had the right to a friend's assistance behind the voting booth. People of all ages came, from 18 to 100. Old men in their white felt skullcaps and baggy woolen trousers, women in baggy cotton trousers and scarves, younger folks in modern clothing.
I was lucky that my polling station committee was a group of enthusiastic people who wanted to do things right. They had studied the rules and understood them as well as possible. When there was a problem we worked things out together. There were few problems. Occasionally someone marked up the candidate list that was in each polling booth, so we had to replace it.
The only real problem was that some of the observers were complaining to high heaven. There were around six observers, including three from the PDK. These people, knowing their party was going to lose, apparently had decided to make a scandal at my little out-of-the-way village. So every time someone marked up the candidate list, one of them would trot over to the polling station record book and write down a complaint. After a while a journalist from the local radio station showed up and started asking around about these "irregularities." I wasn't supposed to comment, but told him if he wanted to find a real problem, he should go to Mitrovica, where Serbs have garrisoned half the town and are not letting Albanians return to their homes.
We finally solved the graffiti problem by putting the candidate lists on the wall above and behind the polling booths, where voters could read them but could not surreptitiously mark them. Then the observers started complaining that "people were telling other people how to vote behind the polling booth." Of course they were, as the other people couldn't read, or the wives were asking their husbands how to vote, having left it for the last minute. Never mind that the PDK observers' own relatives were doing the same thing; this was scandal material.
After a while the head of the local PDK chapter showed up and told me that his party was going to file a request for annulment of the election, based on these "irregularities." I told him he had the right to present a written complaint, and he thanked me. I also told him that I felt it was impossible to know what one person was telling another behind the booth, and that one day, when all Albanians are literate, this won't be a problem.
The voting wound down in time for us to close at 7:00 p.m. Just at this point the electricity failed, and we still needed to count the ballots. The chairman of the polling station committee happened to have a generator at his disposal, and as the last few voters voted by lamplight, he hooked it up. The committee then counted the votes slowly and carefully. Over 600 of approximately 680 registered voters had voted. Around 12% voted for the PDK, and most of the rest for Rugova's party.
We delivered the ballots to the OSCE field office. The election officers were so tired that they just looked at me with glazed eyes and threw the election material in a corner. I was back on the Austrian base before midnight, too tired to sleep. Most of the other supervisors weren't so lucky. Some had polling station committees that fell apart under pressure; others had to take care of two or more stations in the same location. At one station a crowd got out of control and someone stole a pistol from an international policeman. That station was closed down. Other than that, there were few untoward incidents.
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Sunday we decompressed and hung around the base. I caught a ride to Prizren with some other supervisors to visit some old friends. My friends were happy that the LDK had won. I asked the mother what she thought of the new Yugoslav president, Kostunica. She said, "He's a protégé of Milosevic." Her teenage son was sitting quietly at a computer. She began to say, "People here wanted Milosevic to stay in power so that the Serbs would..." Her son interjected, "suffer." She finished, "...so that they would suffer for a few more years. This, from an intelligent and civilized woman whose family had been trapped in their house by Serbs for the duration of the NATO intervention.
Albanians I have spoken with are ignoring the recent change in Serbia. Since their unanimous orientation is towards complete independence for Kosovo, the sentiment is that there is nothing to talk to the Serbs about. Meanwhile, Kostunica gained recognition from the international community almost immediately. The way foreign diplomats have beat a path to Kostunica's door is worrisome because there is little indication that there will be real pressure on him to deliver some kind of justice regarding Serbian war crimes in Kosovo - and for that matter, in Bosnia and elsewhere.
This "oversight" on the part of the international community is, unfortunately, just another in a long series of examples that show that the priority is business, not justice. Veton Surroi, editor of the Prishtina daily Koha Ditore, said that "the euphoric post-Milosevic train in the West should slow down a little." He added, that Yugoslavia was not a country, but a "disintegration process," and that changes in Belgrade had reached no further than the presidency.
During his campaign, Kostunica wrote off the Hague war crimes tribunal as a politicized institution in the hands of the West. After the election he said that extradition of war criminals "is not a problem that is on my mind right now. Today, I am thinking more about the problems of electric power than the Hague tribunal," he said. Of course, he has to play to his constituency. But he also has to play the game with international donors, which is what the Serbian people brought him into power for in the first place.
Soon after the election, Kostunica's line began to change. He is now saying that Milosevic will be tried, although if this takes place in Serbia, it is doubtful that there will be anything more than a corruption trial. But Kostunica also admitted that Serbs committed crimes in Kosovo. He said it like this: "The Serbs made some mistakes...but the Serbs suffered the most of all the nations of the former Yugoslavia." This will not inspire the Bosnians or Albanians to feel understood by the new Serbian regime.
There is further evidence of Serbian movement towards compliance. Yugoslavia's new foreign minister, a prominent opposition figure, said, "We cannot and must not avoid facing the consequences of the war. We need to do everything to reveal to our public everything that was done, whether in the name of alleged Serb national interest or against Serbs.''
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Monday, October 30
I went to Skopje to suffer through a horrible cold (courtesy of the Organization for Spreading Colds in Europe) and to visit my old friend Sali, uncle of Llora who is in Seattle, and his family. We watched the results of the Kosovo elections on television. The OSCE gave a report on the 90% of the ballots that were counted. The LDK won in every large town in Kosovo, and in most of the other municipalities as well. The municipalities where the PDK won were rural areas that had been long-time centers of armed resistance, particularly around Drenica.
Bernard Kouchner appeared at a press briefing on the election results. He cheered the elections enthusiastically, comparing this progress to democratization in other parts of the world, including Guatemala. He said, "There is one winner, the people of Kosovo; all Kosovars, including the Serbs." Sali and I agreed that he must have been on cocaine.
Kostunica weighed in refusing to recognize the results. Sali said, "Who asked him?" Montenegrin president Djukanovic spoke at length about the need to redefine Montenegro's relationship with Serbia, instead of maintaining a "non-existent Yugoslavia." He proposed that Montenegro have its own seat at the United Nations. I noted that Montenegro's secession would make it easier for Kosovo to be independent. Sali said, "It's only a matter of time."
Sali was glad that the LDK had won the elections. He described Thaci as a gangster who had little education and almost no political experience. I found it impressive and very unlike Bosnia that people would vote for the more low-key option. Sali and my friends in Kosovo pointed out that Albanians recognized Rugova's good relations with foreign diplomats, and that to the extent that Rugova was no longer personally popular, people still voted for the LDK as an experienced party with a well-developed local infrastructure.
Thursday, November 2
I took a bus back to Kosovo, to visit friends in Prishtina. The last time I was there was in July of 1999, just after the withdrawal of the Serb regime. Then Kosovo was a tense and chaotic place with ongoing arson and looting, amid the euphoria of newfound freedom. Now there is an atmosphere of normality. Houses and buildings have been rebuilt, and traffic and business are conducted in a relatively orderly way. People are even fined for not using their seat belts.
People are walking the streets and doing business. Thirty Albanian newspapers and magazines were on sale at the bus station kiosk, topped by a calendar with a big picture of President Clinton. Most of Kosovo is a non-Serb country. Serbian street and city names have been painted over. Advertisements and restaurant names in Serbian are also gone. For the Serbs who live here (now numbering only 700 in Prishtina, and those are under guard), this is too bad, but it is a logical conclusion of the last ten years' history. A Serbian leader said that the Albanians ought to erect a statue to Milosevic in the center of Prishtina. This would also be logical.
I walked through downtown Prishtina, and visited the shopping complex "Boro i Ramiz." This was named after two World War II Partisan fighters who were friends, an Albanian and a Serb. The name has stuck, for the time being. The complex was cheerful and bustling, as I had never seen it before. One of many 24-hour Internet cafes around Prishtina was busy with foreigners and young Albanians.
At my friends' house I watched the news on television. KFOR troops found a recently-planted cache of arms and Serb uniforms. They also frequently confiscate Albanian weapons, and arrest people carrying them. Children and shepherds also regularly report mines they have found. The good news: Flora Brovina, Albanian poet and human rights activist, has been released from a Serbian jail! She is back home.
I visited Ferhat, Llora's brother. I hadn't seen him in ten years, and he is all grown up, working for an international organization. He and his friends are not happy about the victory of the LDK. He says, "They were in power for ten years, and did nothing. That's ten years of my life in which I was able to do nothing at all. Ten years of my life were lost. People voted against the PDK because of some mistakes that they made."
I visited with Fatos, a cousin of Llora's and, at age 15, a busy environmental activist. His aunt told me that she voted for the PDK out of a feeling of obligation - because they had fought for independence - but that she was not disappointed that the LDK had won. She said that the most important thing was that the election leads towards self-government for Albanians.
Saturday, November 4
I went with Ferhat and his wife to Gjakova to visit Llora's parents. I had missed visiting them in 1998 because of police-induced complications, and when I went to find them last year, they were still in exile in Albania. On the way we drove through Drenica. Graffiti: "Kosova wants Thaci," and "Rugova is a traitor." We took a detour around a NATO-downed bridge. I apologized for that. A friend told me, however, "We were ready for them to bomb our own houses, if it was necessary in order to drive out the Serb regime."
Gjakova was the location of a particularly high number of murders during the NATO bombing. There, Albanians were herded into houses that were then set on fire. Llora's father told me, "I stayed in this house for 43 nights. I prayed that I would be shot with a machine gun, rather than being killed with a power saw, or crucified on a door as they did to some children."
That night Adem Demaci, an Albanian human rights activist who had been in prison for 28 years, went to Belgrade to speak on Serbian television. He has been regarded as somewhat of a loose cannon by many Albanians. Someone said, "Even staying in a hotel for 28 years could drive you crazy." But what he said in Belgrade was well-received by the Albanians. He told the Serbs, "You can forget about a Kosovo under Serbia. No Albanian will ever accept that again. Ten years ago I promoted 'Balkania,' a federated Yugoslavia with Kosovo as a new republic. That would have been good for you Serbs. However, that too has passed."
Someone told me that Demaci said, "I come here as a man, not as an Albanian. You too should act like humans, not like Serbs." I'm not sure whether he really said that.
I doubt any of this was well received by the Serbs. They need to face the truth about what their government did and what they supported. But they need to hear this from their own people, no one is holding their breath waiting for this to happen.
Back in Prishtina, other friends I visited were investing in extensive remodels of their houses People are remodeling, getting married, and having babies. Life goes on.
I left Kosovo for Bosnia. For the first time in this decade, I had visited the province without great damage to my nerves.