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Jim Shultz: Newsletter From Kosovo

The Democracy Center On-Line
Volume 79 - February 3, 2008

Dear Readers:

I am in the middle of a two-week work visit to the Balkans, asked here by two agencies of the United Nations to provide advocacy training to the local members of their staff dealing with children's rights and environmental issues. Over the course of the next few weeks this region of the world will reclaim global headlines again, as Kosovo declares its official independence from Serbia, amidst denunciations from Serbia, Russia and others. Here is an offering from what will, sometime in the next few weeks, become the world's newest nation.

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center


Kosovo, The Balkans

I had to take a detour this morning on the snowy mountain road through the Balkan mountains that leads from Kosovo to Montenegro. The UN driver that escorted me to the border explained that the problem wasn't road conditions, but political ones.

The direct route between the two Balkan enclaves cuts through a small corner of Serbia, the nation from which Kosovo intends to declare its independence in the next few weeks. Because the flight that brought me here a week ago landed directly in Kosovo – no stop in Belgrade, no Serbian stamp in my blue passport – Serbian policy says that I arrived in the country illegally. Making border crossings a hassle is just one part of the pressure leaders in Belgrade seeks to bring on what they consider a runaway province.

This is Kosovo ten years down the road from a war with still open wounds, and weeks before it declares itself the world's newest nation. It is a country waiting to be a country, a place where 17,000 NATO troops still patrol the streets in giant green personnel carriers, and where Serbia to the north still considers it not only a part of that country but its ancient homeland.

"It will happen at anytime," people here tell me, maybe weeks, maybe months, but independence, they assure me, will happen.

"They sell every kind of firework here you can imagine," another UN employee tells me. "Independence Day, when it comes, will be very, very loud. There will also be gunfire, he warns. The guns will not be aimed at people, but up in the sky, in celebration. He lives on the top floor of his building and worries about some of those celebration bullets raining down onto his roof – or his living room floor.

Ten years after the war, and the NATO bombing that helped end it, the motivations for Kosovo independence are still easy to see here. On the road over the mountains there are still shattered skeletons of brick houses destroyed by Serbian mortar fire. There are also shattered Christian Orthodox churches destroyed in retaliation, by members of Kosovo's Muslim majority.

"First a Serbian neighbor of mine came to my apartment and warned me to leave," another of my new acquaintances remembered. "He said, 'Soon others will come and they will not speak so nicely as I am.' Then others came, shooting guns into the air in the street and ordering us to leave Kosovo. So we left." By the tens of thousands Albanian-speaking Kosovars fled, most of them to Macedonia. The fortunate ones took up residence with relatives. Many others ended up in UN refugee camps.

It is not surprising that the UN, NATO, and the US are considered heroes by many here who fled. They recite by heart the exact number of days that NATO dropped bombs on Belgrade and other targets to end the Kosovo expulsions – seventy-two. As we drove the mountain road this morning the UN driver recounted how he traveled the opposite direction a decade ago, home from Macedonia, "in a NATO motorcade." He waited three months more to bring his family home, wanting to be sure that a fragile peace would hold.

Today in Serbia, voters go to the polls in national elections, picking between two candidates dubbed by the foreign press as "moderate and Europe-leaning" on one side, and "radical nationalist and Russia-leaning" on the other. On Kosovo, however, their position is the same – it must remain a part of Serbia. The imminent declaration of independence is regarded in Serbia akin to how Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring California a sovereign nation might be received in Washington. But 17,000 NATO troops, including a large US military base, seems to assure that hot rhetoric and border crossing hassles are likely as far as Serbia will go.

The challenges ahead for the 2 million people who inhabit this nation-to-be are rooted much more in economics than in political aggression (though there is concern about whether large numbers of Serbs in the nation's north will leave). Kosovo, when it declares independence, will not only be the world's newest nation, it will also be among the youngest. Half its people are under 25-years-old and adult unemployment soars near 40%.

"Right now what we mainly produce is trash," another Kosovar told me. The roads are littered with plastic bags and gutted automobile carcasses. Organized crime is rampant and growing here. Idleness, especially among the young, is worrisome. And everything, everything is essentially dictated by foreigners. The UN is the official government here. The International Monetary Fund, so notorious for its economic dictates tied to aid, wields orders here even before it has provided a dime.

Kosovo, like South Africa, Bolivia, Eastern Europe and other corners of the world in the last two decades, is headed down the exhilarating path of transforming its national identity. And as in those other places, popular expectations are high, unrealistically high, about what rebirth will bring.

It is only after the echoes of the fireworks fade and after the bullets shot into the sky (hopefully) roll off of rooftops that the not-so-romantic work of nation building will begin.


THE DEMOCRACY CENTER ON-LINE is an electronic publication of The Democracy Center, distributed on an occasional basis to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations, policy makers, journalists and others, throughout the US and worldwide. Please consider forwarding it along to those who might be interested. People can request to be added to the distribution list by sending an e-mail note to mailto: Newspapers and periodicals interested in reprinting or excerpting material in the newsletter should contact The Democracy Center at "". Suggestions and comments are welcome. Past issues are available on The Democracy Center Web site.


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