Kosovo’s multiethnic experiment

Those currently debating a multiethnic government for Afghanistan should look at Kosovo - where this kind of experiment has deepened divisions.

Jon Holbrook

Topics Politics

When the people of Kosovo went to the polls on 17 November 2001 to elect their first national assembly since Serb forces were driven out in 1999, NATO secretary general Lord Robertson was quick to hail the elections ‘a remarkable step towards normality’, giving ‘all communities in Kosovo the chance to build a truly democratic, multiethnic and prosperous society’ (1). But were they?

By focusing on a few facts it is possible to portray the elections positively: 46 percent of Serbs voted, whereas most Serbs had boycotted the local elections last year; there were no reports of significant malpractice or intimidation on election day; and, best of all for the international community, the moderate Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) won more votes (46 percent) than former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci (26 percent) (2).

But such statistics do not justify the international community’s claims that this was a free and democratic election.

Kosovo’s 120-member assembly will be responsible for health, social welfare, education, sport – but, as David Chandler points out elsewhere on spiked, Kosovo’s new constitutional framework document (3) subjects the assembly’s responsibilities to the powers of the UN’s special representative in the region, Hans Haekkerup (see Faking democracy in Kosovo, by David Chandler). His 26 powers include being able to dissolve the assembly and call new elections, set the budget, control all law enforcement institutions, including the police and judiciary, and manage foreign affairs.

In short, overall power in Kosovo will remain with the international community, and the Kosovo Assembly will have powers akin to those of an English town council. Though even English town councils are not bogged down with the kind of structures the Kosovo Assembly will have – including two presidents (a president of the assembly and a president of Kosovo), a presidency (seven members of the assembly), a prime minister, and ministers who will form the ‘government’.

Robertson also hailed the elections as providing a platform for Kosovo to build a ‘prosperous society’. Again, there are some superficial signs of economic progress – with some of the houses and infrastructure that were destroyed before, during and after NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign being rebuilt, and the construction industry experiencing a mini-boom. But, as the BBC’s Paul Anderson points out, ‘the boom is a false one, based on two main sources of income’ (4).

The first source of income is the huge sum (estimated at $750 million in the year 2000 alone) that flows from the Albanian diaspora, mostly in the USA, Germany and Switzerland. The second source is the billions of dollars generated by the international community in the shape of aid, expertise and the personal spending of tens of thousands of peacekeepers, civilian administrators and NGO staff.

Despite these cash inflows, Kosovo remains one of Europe’s poorest regions. Kosovo has an ailing economy with little ability to create its own wealth – and if either source of external cash were withdrawn, the economy would collapse.

Contrary to Robertson’s claims, the assembly elections revealed, not the prospects for economic growth, but the poverty of economic ideas. When asked what he would do about Kosovo’s 50 percent unemployment, LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova, who believes in the healing powers of crystals, explained that the people of Kosovo should export large mountain dogs, make more jam and do more to conserve Kosovo’s water buffalo (5).

Even at a superficial level, it is hard to see how Kosovo’s elections could lead the way to a multiethnic society. All the parties that took part in the elections were of a distinct ethnicity – and all campaigned on the one issue that is guaranteed to divide Kosovo: its future constitutional status. Kosovo’s Serbs want to remain part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia while Kosovo’s Albanians want independence. Indeed, such are the ties between Kosovo’s Serbs and Yugoslavia that a Serb boycott of the election was only avoided this time around because – after much arm twisting by the international community – Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica told Kosovo Serbs to vote (6).

The international community was most concerned about the uncompromising response to the elections from Kosovo’s Albanians. ‘We insist that the independence of Kosovo is recognised as soon as possible’, said Ibrahim Rugova. Flora Brovina of Hashim Thaci’s party that came out of the KLA said the international community does ‘not have to create Kosovo’s independence. We will establish independence’ (7).

Since NATO troops entered Kosovo its ethnic divisions seem to have increased. After Yugoslavia’s surrender to NATO forces in June 1999 some 200,000 Serbs fled the province – and only about 80,000 now remain out of a total Kosovo population of over two million. Those who have stayed live in enclaves or in divided cities like Mitrovica, guarded around the clock by international peacekeepers. They find it difficult to travel or speak their language in public, for fear they will join the 2000 Serbs and other minorities who have gone ‘missing’ since June 1999.

An observer for Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo between March and July 2000 noted that ‘the human rights situation in Kosovo now is absolutely dire, perhaps worse than at any time before the bombing’ – before going on to describe his work in the village of Bogosevac, near Prizren:

‘…a tiny but very beautiful hamlet occupied only by eight old Serb women and one old man. They had been suffering from looters who would simply turn up in the village, take what they wanted and beat up or killed the occupants. The German army could not maintain a permanent presence so OSCE did its best to visit at least once a day. …Whatever happens, that community will no longer exist in a few years, with its inhabitants dead from old age or removed to Serbia. When they are gone the likelihood is that the church will be blown up, new inhabitants will move in, people who will pretend that there were never any Serbs there.’ (8)

In June 2001, the UN sent 15 ambassadors to assess progress in Kosovo since NATO forces took over two years earlier. According to the BBC’s Jacky Rowland, who accompanied them, some things seemed certain – like that there would be ‘another wave of ethnic cleansing from the province – this time of Serbs’. She also noted that her international friends in Kosovo had replaced their dreams of a multiethnic Kosovo with ‘the reality of a monoethnic, intolerant state-in-the-making’ (9).

But when the UN ambassadors left Kosovo, Rowland ‘had to smile ruefully when they came out with confident sounding assertions of optimism. Only the Russian ambassador dared suggest that the international emperor had no clothes’.

The lie of Kosovo is that the 17 November elections were a step towards normality, democracy, prosperity and multiethnicity. The truth of Kosovo is that the elections were window dressing for a society that now seems even more violent, divided and extreme than at any time in its past. Like the UN ambassadors, Lord Robertson might consider this a truth he cannot face – but then, this is the same George Robertson who, as UK defence secretary in 1999, supported the 78-day bombing campaign that paved the way for the international community to take the reins in Kosovo.

This political outlook can make it hard to see when the international emperor has no clothes.

Read on:

Faking democracy in Kosovo, by David Chandler

Kosovo elections: who’s failing the test of democracy?, by David Chandler

Dictating democracy in Belarus, by David Chandler

spiked-issues: International

(1) Lord Robertson statement, 17 November 2001

(2) See the OSCE Certified results

(3) Constitutional framework for Provisional Self-Government, UN, 15 May 2001

(4) Analysis: beyond Kosovo’s vote, BBC News Online, 17 November 2001

(5) Pacifist claims poll victory in Kosovo, Daily Telegraph, 19 November 2001

(6) Kostunica tells Kosovo Serbs to vote, BBC News Online, 3 November 2001

(7) Kosovan victor claims win for independence, Guardian, 19 November 2001

(8) ‘An End to the Scourge of War?’, Frank Ledwidge, Counsel (magazine of the Bar Council), June 2000

(9) Brave new Kosovo, BBC News Online, 30 June 2001. See the UN report (.pdf format)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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