Kosovo Election Journal, 2002

By Peter Lippman

November 18, 2002

I was invited by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to go to Kosovo in mid-October and work as a supervisor in their second municipal elections. I had worked on the first ones in 2000 and not been able to return to Kosovo since then, so I accepted the invitation. I took the opportunity afterwards to visit friends around Kosovo and Macedonia, and to go to Albania for the first time. This journal is about my time in those places.

The names that appear in quotation marks are those that have been changed to protect the person's privacy.

There are two supplements to this journal entry:

At the end of the Kosovo section I have inserted a couple of paragraphs from my friend Bob Brandstetter, who I met while working on OSCE-administered elections in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1998. He also worked on these elections in Kosovo, and by chance was sent to a Serb-populated area. I found his observations to be an interesting complement to mine.


We supervisors stayed in Prishtina for the first few days after our arrival. The change since I last visited in 2000 was quite noticeable. Houses that had been burned down were removed, and others sported fresh coats of mortar and paint. Bright shops and restaurants have proliferated. The piles of garbage burning on the street corners have disappeared. There's a noticeable presence of police officers, both men and women. All this does not necessarily make a Switzerland, but the post-war air of bedlam is gone.

The Kosovo Albanian idolization of America and Bill Clinton has taken concrete expression. The "Victory Hotel" at the entrance to Prishtina is crowned with a six-meter-high Statue of Liberty. A 3.5-kilometer boulevard nearby has been refurbished and renamed "Bill Clinton," with a prominent 12-meter high photo of Clinton posted there. I noticed several shops named after Clinton (including a marble supplier), and a restaurant named "Hillary."

Working with the OSCE

The OSCE's by now routine pre-election training for supervisors was partly useful, as usual. Our job is to learn the rules of the elections very well, and then to be available to help the local polling station committee members through the process. Some of these members have also been trained well, but our presence ensures a certain amount of quality control. This was the fifth OSCE election I have worked in since 1997, and I must say that the OSCE has learned a few things about organization. The procedure is considerably more orderly than before, with fewer built-in inconsistencies.

Besides learning the rules, we had the usual security briefing and radio training. For the first time in my experience, the hand-held radios actually worked in the field. We practiced the military alphabet code: "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie..." The two-hour mine safety lecture could have been distilled to one sentence: "Stay on the pavement and don't pick up strange objects." We learned that around 40,000 mines had been laid in over 600 mine fields, but that the mines were 90% cleared. The U.S. and British airplanes dropped around 15,000 cluster bombs. They are supposed to be dropped from 5,000 feet, but in fact were dropped from about three times that height, so they often scattered and did not explode. That left much "unexploded ordnance" ("UXO") lying randomly around Kosovo.

I had a conversation with an American OSCE official about Bush's plan to attack Iraq. This man described himself as a "left-liberal redneck who loves boating and hiking." (Dis)regarding the right or wrong of the impending attack, he said, "I expect the war will happen in any case, and I hope to go to Iraq afterwards. We can help them. That should be a rich country." I was made breathless by this outlook, wherein any real concern about the effects of the war on civilians -- and for that matter, on worldwide security -- was replaced by the mainstream liberal ethic that says America knows what's best for the world and can fix everyone's problems. The underlying arrogance shocks me, though I know it is an integral component to the self-serving careerism of many international officials. It also reminds me of the off-hand question a Spanish journalist asked me in Palestine last summer: "Are Americans as stupid as they seem?"

International news at this time was focusing on the Washington D.C. sniper crisis. I made friends with a kindly Dutch man of African descent, who said, "This kind of violence is unthinkable in Europe; that only happens in America." He asked me, "How can it happen, with so many churches there?"

Suha Reka

I was sent to work in Suha Reka, coincidentally the same place I worked in 2000. This is a relatively peaceful, quiet part of Kosovo. Before the war the Serb population was around 5%; now it is zero. There are very few other minorities, the Roma having left or been driven out. Given this near-homogeneity of the population, few or no problems were expected with the elections.

We had more briefings. We were sleeping at the Austrian KFOR base, "Camp Casablanca." We were admonished not to frequent locales. Since trafficking of women and prostitution are big problems in Kosovo, we were even given a list of restaurants and nightclubs between Suha Reka and Prizren that were off limits. We were also told that most crime in the region is perpetrated by "criminal fraternities." I found that to be a delicate euphemism for "mafia."

I met my "language assistant" (interpreter), "Valbona," who is from the village where I was going to work. I asked her about the Serbs who had left the Suha Reka area, and whether they would come back. She said, "We are expecting them to come home. It's not a problem for us, but it may be a problem for them, as some of them committed crimes." In fact, around 500 Albanians were killed in Suha Reka. In one house, 45 people were massacred. I learned that some of the bodies of the victims from Suha Reka were those transported to Serbia in a refrigerator truck. This infamous truck was driven into the Danube, and later surfaced, bringing to light a gruesome atrocity and causing a scandal.

Valbona took me to visit her parents in the village, not far from the polling station. During the NATO intervention her family fled to Kukes in Albania. She told me that her house was destroyed two times during the war. When her family came back, they fixed it. They used to have a cow, but it was stolen during the war.

We shared tea and talked. Valbona's parents told me that "Clinton was good, but Bush was not so good." They were uneasy about his plan to attack Iraq.


By 1:00 p.m. 40% of the people on the voter list had voted, and the rest of the day went slowly. There was an air of festivity at the school where my four polling stations were located. Women were coming dressed in pants suits, high heels, and makeup. The older women wore dimije, the baggy Turkish trousers. The older men wore the plis, a white felt cap. Valbona has many cousins, uncles, and aunts who showed up to vote. Many children spent the day hanging about outside the school.

During the long voting day there were very few glitches. There was a tall UNMiK (U.N. Mission in Kosovo) policeman from a small town near Tampa, Florida, helping to guard the polling station. A kindly young man, he had spent six years on the police force in his hometown. I asked him what he had hanging from his belt: mace, handcuffs, a 9-milimeter pistol, a camera. He told me that in six years he had only used the mace a few times: "I prefer to go hands on," he said. The discussion turned to Las Vegas, which he called the "city of sin." He was astonished that educational conferences could be held in such a place. He commented, "The United States is going downhill. The evils of capitalism are coming back at us."

The polling station committees were composed of competent, well-trained people. They were unanimous in their adoration of America.

It was a long day. We supervisors had to be awake by 3:30 a.m. in order to collect the polling station materials and be at the stations by 6:00. Polling began at 7:00 and continued for 12 hours. The complicated part was counting the votes and then packing all the sensitive materials correctly for delivery to the municipal election committees for intake. However, the committees performed the count efficiently. I had to supervise the packing of ballots and other "sensitive materials" closely, because if there were any mistakes, the committees would have to reconvene and do it over. But we finished and delivered the materials relatively early, by 10:30 p.m.

There will be another election in Kosovo in 2004. The Albanians are capable of running the elections themselves, and can figure out ways to make them less complicated than the OSCE system. For that matter, perhaps they should come help us run our own elections in the U.S.

The only potential controversy at the polling station was that there was an Albanian flag hanging in front of the school. The problem with this was that it could be seen as a nationalist provocation by Serb voters. But the red and black double eagle, the official flag of Albania, is also the flag of the Albanians of Kosovo and Macedonia. It was flown freely in Kosovo before Milosevic's time, and is now seen everywhere. The OSCE's policy has been to ask for its removal from polling stations.

There were arguments and tension over this issue in the two previous elections. The OSCE's policy remained that we should ask the polling station manager to remove the flag. However, various mid-level officials made it clear to me that it would be just as well to go softly on this issue -- to mention the flag to the local people, note its presence in the polling station comment book, and leave it at that.

When I mentioned the flag the day before the elections, someone said, "If you can have your flag at your polling stations in America, why can't we?" I did not argue. In a municipality devoid of Serbs, it was hardly worth worrying about. It would have been provocative, unwise, and in my opinion condescending to press the issue. When the elections were over, an off-duty local (Albanian) OSCE official told me, "There is always an Albanian flag displayed at the municipality building, as well as the school. If they are going to enforce an anti-flag policy, they will have to be consistent about it.

One of the trainers recounted to us the story of a man who brought in his wife to vote in last year's election. The polling committee members said that she had already voted. The husband insisted she hadn't. Then they asked the wife if she had voted, and she said that she had. The husband responded, "Oh, it must be my other wife." Then he came back with another woman, who had not voted.

Between 80,000 and 90,000 Serbs still live in Kosovo, mainly in the northern part of the province and a couple of other enclaves. There are some 200,000 displaced Serbs from Kosovo living in Montenegro and Serbia, around 120,000 of whom have the right to vote.

Before the elections, official representatives of the Serbs vacillated about whether they were going to encourage Serb participation in the elections or not. Some of them opposed participation, as they said that this would give legitimacy to the foreign-run process. Very late in the process, governmental officials in Serbia proclaimed that it would be beneficial for the Serbs to participate. Just before the elections, Serb spokesmen in Kosovo announced that they would vote in municipalities where they had a majority.

The elections went as smoothly as could be imagined in the Suha Reka municipality, and for the most part went off without incident in the rest of Kosovo as well. In Suha Reka there was not even a much rivalry between the top two Albanian parties, which had tended to cooperate extensively in local government. LDK, the moderate party of Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova, took a strong lead in the municipality.

However, the day after the elections, someone shot and killed the newly re-elected mayor of Suha Reka, Uke Bytyqi, and his two bodyguards. This was apparently something along the lines of a freak incident, involving an irate member of another party who got in an argument with some people celebrating the LDK's victory. When the mayor tried to break it up, he was shot.

As with most upsetting events in this region, there is another version of what happened: that militants from the second largest party -- that of Thaci, wartime political leader of the Kosovar army (KLA) -- stopped a convoy of LDK members and demanded that they remove their LDK party flags from their vehicles. When they refused, the mayor was shot.

This event cast a pall on the whole election process. All the local people who I talked to were very upset, saying that Bytyqi was a very good man, one who had participated in the rebellion from the beginning, and who had done a lot of good for his community. He was well known and well-regarded by Albanians throughout the region.

In the end, the overall turnout of registered voters was around 55%, quite a drop from previous years. OSCE officials described the reason as "voter fatigue." Among the Serbs, the turnout was below 20% -- higher within Kosovo, and considerably lower among the displaced Serbs. Rugova's party won around half the municipalities and made a strong showing in several others. Thaci's party took control of a handful of municipalities, as did Serb representatives. Thaci's party tended to win more votes among the poorer communities, and in places where guerrilla activity had been particularly strong.

The German head of the U.N. Mission to Kosovo, Michael Steiner, had been negotiating with the Serb community, encouraging them to participate in the political life of the province. If they voted, then they would have representation in their municipal bodies. But for various reasons most Serbs abstained. Some cited fear for their security. Some did not want to "legitimize" the political development of Kosovo as an entity separate from Serbia. In this they were taking guidance from leaders who agitate for the return of Kosovo to Serbia's jurisdiction.

While Security Council Resolution 1244 more or less leaves Kosovo as part of Serbia, everyone -- the international actors, the Serbs in both Serbia and Kosovo, and of course the Albanians -- knows that there is no sane Albanian who will acquiesce to renewed domination by Serbia. Therefore, all of these actors need to find a way that Serbs and Albanians can work together politically, if not socially, in an at least de facto independent Kosovo. But such cooperation is a long way off. Encouragement from Serbian politicians for participation was merely symbolic. Others called for a boycott. With a few prominent exceptions, most Albanians aren't spending time asking the Serbs -- or any other minorities -- to participate.

Steiner had been talking to Serb representatives about the idea of "decentralization," saying that if strong representation of minorities could be established through the elections, this could encourage a process whereby local communities could take over more of the governance of their municipalities. From this would develop some amount of political autonomy for Serbs. However, the slight turnout of Serbs is not encouraging for such a process. Now, some Serbs are saying that it is OSCE's responsibility to move ahead with decentralization, even to appoint Serb members to the municipal assemblies. At the same time, other Serb leaders are still calling the U.N. Mission an occupation.

The Serbs of Kosovo are in a very bad spot, hated by the Albanians, alternately ignored and manipulated by the government of Serbia, and living poorly in protected enclaves. Those who fled to Serbia during the NATO intervention and afterwards often ended up living in "tents and holes," as one friend described it to me. He said, "They know the reality, but they don't accept it. They know Serbia doesn't care about them."

It is not only the Serbs who are living under difficult conditions in Kosovo. There is a "disconnect" between the smooth operation of the elections and the reality of life in Kosovo. International officials have been praising the elections as another step towards democratization and recovery, but there are still huge problems. Resolution of Kosovo's "final status" is a long way off. Reconciliation is, for now, a fantasy.

Meanwhile, my Albanian friends in Prizren told me that they earn around $150 a month, but that heating costs come to around $100 a month. Employment is below 50%, and the economy is heavily dependent on smuggling and other forms of tax evasion. Cigarettes and fuel are especially popular commodities to smuggle.

Visiting Kosovo

There was a party for supervisors from all around the Prizren-Suha Reka area the night after the elections. The OSCE hired an excellent rock band that also played a few Albanian tunes. One of the OSCE regional officers stood out on the front porch of the hotel where the party was held, regaling us with inside jokes and dirt on other OSCE officers. He provided a few new meanings for the OSCE acronym, some of which I had not heard before. Besides "Organization for Spreading Confusion in Europe" and "Organization for Sitting around in Cafes in Europe," a new one for me was "Oh Shit, Cancel the Elections."

I went to visit my friend "Ismet" in Gjakova (Djakovica) the next day. According to him, during the war the highest number of Albanians, around 600, were killed in Gjakova. He estimated that in all approximately 12,000 were killed before and during the NATO intervention. Of those, around 4,000 are still missing. Some of these people were cremated in the mines at Trepca, others spirited away to Serbia and buried there. Some of their bodies have turned up in the grounds of a police station at Batajnica.

I sat with Ismet on the balcony of his house. He pointed out a woman across the street working in her yard and said, "They killed her husband. She still doesn't know what happened to him."

We walked around the old Turkish section of Gjakova. When I visited in 1999 right after the war, I saw this historic neighborhood desecrated -- in ashes and rubble. Now it has been almost entirely rebuilt in the old style. There are a couple of Dervish tekiyes, places of worship. Ismet and I walked from one refreshment establishment to another, meeting his friends.

There were not many Serbs living in that area before the war. Almost none have returned. There was one Serbian church in Gjakova, built in 1985 in the middle of town. It now stands empty. Around 20% of the Albanian residents of Gjakova are Catholics, and they are building a huge new church at one end of the old section.

As for the Roma, the Ashkali (Albanian-speaking Roma) stayed in Gjakova, and the others fled the area and have not returned.

There is much rebuilding of houses around Gjakova and in many other parts of Kosovo. There are some huge private houses that look like they could be hotels. Most of the reconstruction is privately funded by remittances.

Ismet lamented the poor state of the Kosovo economy. He said, "No one will invest here. The young people are leaving Kosovo again. Who will help us? Germany is interested in collaborating with Russia, and Russia is on Serbia's side, even though they have always left Serbia in the mud. France and Britain have never liked us. Italy and Greece want to swallow us up economically. So all we have left are God and the United States." Notwithstanding the common Albanian adoration for the U. S., Ismet acknowledged that the U.S. helped the Albanians purely because of politics.

I returned to Prizren to visit a couple of other friends. We discussed some of the theories behind the failure of one of Kosovo's main electric power plants. One of Kosovo's main energy providers plants had been struck by lightning, and as a consequence there are blackouts throughout Kosovo -- lights are on for three hours, and then off for three -- or on for four, and then off for two. Our OSCE trainers predicted that the power supply would repaired by next year.

My Prizren friends explained to me that the foreign director of the power system, a German man, had stolen 4.5 million Euros in donations to the industry, and had secreted the funds in a bank in Gibraltar. When he was exposed, he promised to return the money, but then fled the country.

The story of lightning striking the power plant during the summer was a bit of a stretch. Alternative theories abound. My friends connected the event to the disappearance of the German director, who is now nowhere to be found. Perhaps his local Albanian cohorts performed a revenge sabotage attack, they thought. Another friend of mine suggested that the saboteur was someone who had invested in a lot of electrical generators before the power plant was brought into operation. Now, there are certainly a lot of generators working in the streets of Kosovo's towns. Perhaps the generator salesman collaborated with the sellers of flashlights and candles...and warm blankets?

In any case, the main mode of heating around Kosovo is firewood. By October the sidewalks are lined with long piles of split wood.


In Prishtina, I met with "Arben," a young friend whose family I had stayed with in 1998. He was very critical of President Rugova. He said that Rugova doesn't do anything, and that's why the West likes him. At the same time, for this reason he is better than the PDK, the party of Thaci and other KLA militants. He said that people voted for Rugova's party out of habit, but also because they remember the chaos and crimes perpetrated against fellow Albanians by some KLA members after the war.

Arben was very dissatisfied with the international community's handling of Serbs who had committed crimes during the war. He said that the U.N.-run government was arresting Albanians, but very few Serbs, and that it could handle them just as strictly as it handled the Albanians, if it cared to.

Among the more thoughtful Albanians I talked with, opposition to Bush's plan to attack Iraq is unanimous. One professor told me that he thought it would lead to World War III. He said that it would make people hate the United States, and ultimately destabilize the U.S. He asserted that it could even lead to the downfall of the U.S. empire, as he put it, commenting that empires are ever more short-lived.

Another friend of mine told me of how he goes to work out at a health club, and asked me what sports I liked. I said that I preferred yoga, bike riding, and hiking to sports. He said, "We can't do yoga here, and if I ride my bike a bus will hit me, and if I go hiking there are mines in the woods."

* * * * *

I read the news about Palestine. It was olive harvest time, but the Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories are trying to prevent farmers from harvesting their olive groves. When the farmers come to their orchards, the settlers shoot at them, beat them, and sometimes chop down or uproot the olive trees. Sometimes when the farmers succeed in picking some olives, then the settlers come and steal the harvested fruit.

In other news, Chechen rebels took over an opera building in Moscow and threatened to blow everyone up. Russian police then pumped in morphine gas and killed all the Chechens and over 100 of their own people. So, who are the terrorists?

* * * * *

I met with Doni, a friend who works at one of the television stations. He commented on Kosovo's stalled political situation, saying that manipulation of Kosovo's Serbs by politicians in Yugoslavia is a big problem. However, he said, Kosovo's Albanians cannot wait for Yugoslav politics to mature, as that will take too long.

Doni lamented the fact that all the parties representing Serbs in Kosovo are for reunification with Serbia. He said, "OK, but let it be a political struggle not a military one, so that the different sides can work to convince each other in a civilized way. And if I or someone else wants to advocate annexation of Kosovo with Albania (which he was not himself promoting), then let us talk about that in the same way, and see what is best."

Doni further complained that the international community has invested millions of Euros in Kosovo, but that little of this money has gone into development, say, of the mines at Trepca. He remarked that there is a huge bureaucracy of people who simply want to keep their jobs.

I commented on the difficult fate of a small country, always at the whim of surrounding big powers. Doni said that Albanians have loyalty to the United States not only as the country that saved them in 1999, but also because if the problem had been left to Europe, the Albanians would never have seen the end of Milosevic.

Doni also called Steiner a "manikin," a man without a plan.

Another friend recapped the complaints of my Gjakova friend: "The same thing that has happened in Bosnia is going to happen in Kosovo: people will start leaving. Who will invest here?" He asked me if the United States would decide to do something to help resolve the question of Kosovo's political status, asserting that there is only one option." I responded that the Kosovars need to understand that even though America helped liberate the Albanians, that does not mean that it is their friend. I fear what will happen when this becomes clear to people in Kosovo.

As I was leaving Kosovo, a new controversy erupted. Yugoslavia is going through something like a devolution process in which it will jettison the used-up name and just call itself "Serbia and Montenegro." This process requires writing a new constitutional charter that will define the bond between the two entities. Some political actors want to retain a tight federation; others (notably Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic) want a loose confederation that will eventually dissolve.

The current draft of the constitutional charter names Kosovo as a part of Serbia. When this draft came out in early November, Kosovo Albanians immediately raised a great protest, calling this a "new aggression from Serbia." The Kosovo assembly adopted a resolution that it would declare Kosovo's independence if such a draft were adopted. The Kosovo Serbs walked out of the assembly session. Serbia's chief negotiator on Kosovo said that the resolution had nothing to do with reality, and that only Serbia, not the U.N., would decide on Kosovo's final status. Steiner announced that neither Serbia nor Kosovo could decide alone. No one was satisfied.

Some notes from Bob Brandstetter

My polling municipality was in Strpce, a Serb enclave near Kacanik and Brezovica, on the Macedonian border. It is in the mountains and was a popular ski resort in the old days. It was quite beautiful, especially in comparison to the Kosovo plains in the rest of the country. I was with nine other people (4 Yanks, 2 Poles, 2 Spaniards, and an Italian) and we stayed in a ski hotel, which was comfortable. There were some very good restaurants in the area for some reason, and we ate quite well. The place was smothered with KFOR troops (Ukrainians, Poles, and Yanks), a variety of civpols, and local police. The Serbs didn't leave the enclave without an escort. The people are quite discouraged about the future, as the writing on the wall becomes more clear every day that Belgrade will/can no longer protect them. People who can leave, are leaving. There was an interesting over compensation of Serb symbolic nationalism reflecting this hopelessness. Several kiosks sell icons, flags, photos of Mladic (of all people) and Kostunica, and most of the signs and writing are in Cyrillic. The surrounding countryside is medieval, oxen pulling wooden wheeled manure carts, haylofts over residences, sickles and wooden pitch forks in the fields. As an ethnographer, I found it was fascinating. I still don't know when, how or why this is a Serb enclave, so far from Serbia proper. I found one small church and graveyard which I was told dated to the 14th century. This is a future research topic for me.

The voting on the 26th went very well, with no problems for me at all. I had the largest polling center with three polling stations (some 800 voters each) and one twin station. It really was too much for one person to cover adequately, but again, OSCE had done a good job in training the polling staff and I was able to appear like I was in control. In contradistinction to the rest of the Serb enclaves, Strpce had a 70% voting turnout. Last time, in typical Serb fashion, they boycotted the elections, to wake up the next morning and find Kosovars running the municipality. This time, they put it together and voted to take over the municipality. From what I could learn, the municipality doesn't really have much authority, but there is the principle of the thing, Serbs being 90% of the population.




I went down to Skopje and visited my old friend "Sali" and his family. Between February and August of 2001, there was a war in Macedonia between Macedonian Albanians and Macedonian Slavs. The Albanians were seeking greater civil rights, including representation in the police force and the right to use their language in an official capacity.

In August of 2001 a peace agreement was signed, but the transition has been difficult, with occasional flare-ups of violence. However, in September of 2002 an election was held in which the extreme nationalist Macedonian Slavs were voted out of power, as were the corrupt Albanian parties. In their place voters chose to return to office the Macedonian Social Democratic Party, which had been in power a few years ago. A large majority of Albanians voted for a new Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration. The DUI was formed by the Albanian soldiers who led the rebellion last year, and it is led by former guerrilla commander Ali Ahmeti. He has shown himself to be a skilled politician. Now these two parties have begun a peaceful collaboration on political terms.

Sali lives in an Albanian neighborhood of Skopje. It used to be ethnically mixed, but most of the Slavs have moved out. There is a process of self-segregation going on now in the country.

Sali told me, "The war did some good here. The Macedonians almost lost. Their army lacked morale. Now they see that they have to treat the Albanians with more respect. For our part, Albanians don't want to secede and become part of Albania or Kosovo. And the Macedonians, if Macedonia breaks up, will be eaten up by Bulgaria or Greece and will never again have a homeland. So there is a kind of forced marriage in which we have to work together. The more reasonable people on both sides can see that we have common interests."

The new prime minister, Crvenkovski, earned a reputation for corruption last time he was in power. Sali told me that Crvenkovski promised "he wouldn't cheat this time." Sali said that some Macedonian Slavs now consider their country a protectorate, as they resent the international forces that have come in to keep Albanians and Slavs from each other's throats.

The losing party of Macedonian nationalists demanded a re-count of the ballots, asserted that thousands of them had been burned, and then declared that they would boycott parliamentary sessions until the end of the year. Sali's assessment was that these people couldn't recognize the validity of democratic procedures. He was not very optimistic about the future of Macedonia, predicting that it will be unstable for the next few decades.


Leaving Tetovo for Albania, I rode through miles of forests into western Macedonia. An Albanian man from Struga (Macedonia) asked me how much one could earn in America. He told me that by farming his corn and beans, he could only earn 300 to 400 Deutschmarks ($150-$200) a month. He wants to join his brother in Italy.

We bypassed beautiful Ohrid, the lake's waters becoming wavy. The sky closed up a foreboding gray. The forests seemed wintry, empty, the harsh mountains looming above them. I brooded about the scenery and thought, "Even the shadows of forgotten ancestors have left this place."

Crossing into Albania after a two-hour wait at the border, I saw a dozen of the famous bunkers -- President Enver Hoxha supposedly built a million of them. Then the fog closed in and I couldn't even see out of the bus, and by the time we descended into a valley, it was dark. After a ten-hour ride through many mountains, the bus arrived at the Balkan metropolis of Tirana. I went to stay with my friend "Manuel," a cohort from previous escapades in Kosovo. Since those days he has gotten a grant, learned Albanian, and is researching history in Tirana.


I walked around Tirana. Everyone had told me that Tirana has changed greatly since the fall of the dictatorship in 1992 and the chaos of 1997. Much international aid has come in, notably from Turkey and Italy, and order and modernity have arrived. Tirana is not terribly attractive, but it's not unpleasant either. There are several broad plazas reminiscent of Rome, and tree-lined streets that will soon deserve the name boulevards again.

What's striking about Tirana is how the current mayor is rescuing it. There are new lamp-posts and sidewalk tiles in much of the central area. Shops with imports and all kinds of modern furnishings abound, as do internet cafes.

An east European socialist city can be the pinnacle of drabness. This mayor has had some artistic schooling, and he personally chose interesting -- and not garish -- color combinations to paint many of the concrete drab-slab apartment buildings. Maroon and ochre, spring green and salmon. The result has been to cheer up the whole town quite effectively.

Any building in Tirana that is of decent design was built by the Italians in the 1930s or during the Italian occupation in WWII. Many of these have been refurbished and repainted. And probably the most remarkable thing is that the city is demolishing dozens, maybe hundreds, of shops, kiosks and even apartment buildings that were built illegally in the last ten years. These were built along the river that goes through town, turning it into a hidden ditch. Now it is being re-exposed and cleaned up. The demolition project has apparently not caused a great outcry over shortage of housing, as most of the removed structures were shops or secondary dwellings for profit.

Because of these things, Kofi Annan gave Tirana's mayor an award for "best mayor in Europe." He said, "I am the best mayor in Europe who is an artist, and the best artist who is a mayor." Neither of which is necessarily an accomplishment, but it does appear that he's accomplishing something.

Wherever I walked, I often came across two or three Roma with tapans and zurlas (bass drum and proto-oboe), walking down the street, either pleasing or annoying people (depending on their taste in music) into paying them some money.

Manuel gave me a scholarly tour of the national museum, a prominent landmark adjacent to the large opera building on the main square. The museum's displays are designed to demonstrate the continuity of Albanian presence from the early Illyrians through the medieval Arbaneshi to modern times. Manuel declared that there is no evidence for most of the historiography presented in the building. On the other hand, some of it is probably true, and to my limited knowledge there is not a better explanation for the origin of the Albanians.

Most of the glorification of the Hoxha system was quickly excised from the displays in the early 1990s. This must have been difficult, as the propaganda/information about the achievements of that system was global in nature. There are numerous blank areas where it is clear that someone simply removed ideological wording and left the rest of the display intact. The occasional attempts at translation into English are entertaining, if not informative.

The museum is a litany of the Albanian struggle to survive, depicted in scenes of battle and uprising against Byzantines, Slavs, Turks, and Italians. All is heroic. Many are the sculptures and murals of antique weapons in the hands of brave rebels. Blunderbusses, swords, halberds. I imagined an ancient rebel requesting his enemy, "Please, would you hold still for about 20 minutes while I breech-load this weapon and powder it up?" Not like today.

Skenderbeg, who held off the Turkish invasion in the 15th century, is prominent in the history. There are statues of him in the several towns I visited in Albania -- and a brand new replica in one of the main squares of Prishtina.

There is one new section in the museum, dedicated to the memory of the "Communist Genocide against the Albanian People." Manuel and I were the only visitors to that area. The walls were lined with hundreds of names of people who were tortured and killed by the Hoxha and Aliu regimes all the way up to 1992. Dioramas showed their personal effects, quotes of their last words, and even a replica of a dungeon cell. Many people were placed into internment camps for the slightest disloyalty.

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I took a day trip to Kruje, the birthplace of Skenderbeg. Leading out to this village hard up against the mountains, the best two-lane road Albania has to offer was jammed with trucks, minibuses, and tractors for the first half-hour. The town itself perches high up under the cliffs of the "Albanian Alps," with a view of the terraced farmland below. Kruje is a combination of old Turkish/Balkan-style red-tile roofed shops, and newer, if not modern, houses and tourist hotels. It reminds me of a hill town in Tuscany.

(In fact, I have a pet theory that the reason why there are so many Albanian words in the Italian language -- e.g., "popullore," "dakord," "Marte" (Tuesday), "ora" (hour), "stacion," etc -- is that when the Turks conquered Albania, many Albanians fled to Italy. This is known. It is also known that there are Albanian Gegs and Albanian Tosks, and I suppose that the Tosks headed for the hills they were so comfortable with and founded Toscana (Tuscany). Manuel would probably differ on this, but oh, well...  For that matter, there are many Albanian words in Greek, Serbian, and Turkish as well, but I haven't found time to develop a theory on that yet.)

The museum of Skenderbeg in the old fort above Kruje is another celebration of heroism with murals of famous battles fought, swords unsheathed, and antique guns shot. When I went to look around, the curators of the museum handed me a battery-operated fluorescent tube lamp to carry with me, as the electricity was off at the time.

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In the news: There was big flooding in northern Albania last summer, and a little flood in Tirana. That flood happened when neighbors of the artificial lake near the center of town noticed it was getting nervously high. They asked the manager of the lake to let it down a bit. He opened the dam, but was then unable to close it, and much damage to nearby houses ensued.

That's how I heard the story from Manuel and one of his friends. However, I read something different in an English-language Albanian periodical. There, it was written that one day the guard of the dam was quite drunk when the directors of the dam came to inspect it. He asked them for another drink, and they refused, saying he had had enough. He angrily threatened to open the dam and drown them. When they left, he did open the dam. No one was hurt, but many houses were damaged, and it took 90 minutes for someone to close the dam.

I walked in the big park alongside the lake created by this dam. Manuel said it was the most peaceful place in town, and he was right. Many trees, kids playing soccer by a small cemetery of fallen Australian and English WWII soldiers, a gardener in the cemetery yelling at them to go somewhere else, a couple of men fishing in a cove, a half dozen young guys practicing break dancing in an amphitheater. A heroic statue of a young woman giving a soldier with an antique rifle a drink of water from a jug. Some stripped monuments to old Hoxha-esque accomplishments. A dozen policemen standing on the dam.

More news: U.S. Vice-President Cheney commends Albania for its assistance in the "fight against terrorism," and states, "We can work with you." Manuel explains that whenever international diplomats visit Albania, they always meet with both the current prime minister and the former one, who could at any time become the current one.

Coming back from the park, I passed the theater by the Academy of Art, where the Vagina Monologues is showing. Next door is the presidential palace, guarded by several soldiers in purple uniforms with red stripes on the sleeves and pants, bearing Kalashnikovs. A couple other guards patrol the grounds with long swords hanging from their belts.

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