Thursday, November 22, 2001

When Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo won the region’s first democratic elections last weekend, I went back to some of my very old notebooks and began rummaging around in the words of yesterday.

In one of them, I found dimly scribed notes on pages that were already yellowing. It was September 1992, and I had passed through the ominous Serb checkpoints between Kosovo and Macedonia and eventually found Mr. Rugova in one of several old houses along the river. Always the dramatist with his lean and almost haunted look and a silk scarf tossed around his neck, he spoke touchingly that day about his people’s plight.

“There is no improvement whatsoever,” he told me, speaking of the bitter Serb occupation of Albanian-majority Kosovo that began in 1989. “I call it an everyday repression’: arrests, provocations, 100,000 Albanians fired from their work, the schools closed, the hospitals too .

“On the one side, you have the former Yugoslav army, and then you have the Serb police. The Serbs in the region are also officially armed and, yes, the Serbs have artillery all around our cities, facing us.”

At the end of the long interview, the man who would be president paused and mused about what he and his fellow Kosovars really wanted. “Kosovo ,” he said somewhat dreamily. “It would be a tiny state, but we could do it. It could be neutral toward Serbs and Albanians and open. It will be a good solution, sometime.”

Before I left that miserable outpost of humanity that day, I looked around. At the university, which was closed, three Serbs with machine guns came out and trained them on me. In the back alleys of Pristina, Kosovars told me in whispers about the beatings, the disappearances, the murders by the Serb police. Even the banks were closed; that way, the Albanian Kosovars could not get money from abroad.

All these images returned to me this weekend. The Democratic League won overwhelmingly and Mr. Rugova was slated to be elected president by the new legislature, probably within the next few weeks. And what was the first thing Mr. Rugova stressed?

“I take this occasion to say that we insist that the independence of Kosovo be recognized formally,” he said. “The peaceful voting proved that the people of Kosovo deserve independence. De facto, we are independent, but we need official recognition by the United States and the European Union, and then others would follow. We are working on it, and I want this to happen today or tomorrow.”

The only problem is that, while independence is the natural solution, that is not what the United Nations wants. Since the 1999 American-led air campaign that freed Kosovo, it has in practice been a U.N. protectorate, with officious and competing U.N. bureaucracies clamping down too much on local decision-making.

In fact, the new legislature is not allowed even to talk about independence, but to deal only with immediate janitorial problems like water, electricity and garbage. The United Nations has already insisted that its people be not advisers to the new Kosovar ministries, but deputies, which would give them strong continued control. The U.N. has even put up many barriers in Kosovo, still formally and legally merely a province of Yugoslavia, to foreign investment, which Kosovo needs desperately. (Apparently they see such investment as giving the Kosovars a chance for independence.)

Party leader Ibrahim Rugova got a lot of laughs recently when he suggested they jump-start the economy by exporting bottled pears, plum jam and a breed of shepherd dogs indigenous to Kosovo. “They’re very, very nice dogs,” he was quoted as saying. “Very peaceful, but strong in self-defense and intelligent.” (“We can’t make jumbo jets,” added an adviser, “but we can make jam.”)

But as a matter of fact, this was not really so funny at all, because every country, particularly a small one, starts out best economically by creating “value-added” products.

The international community continues to insist that a future Kosovo be oh-so-rightly “multicultural.” That means the lamb (the Kosovars) must lie down with the lion (the Serbs who oppressed them so terribly for years) and make geopolitical love. (Serbs remaining in the region, for instance, have been assured of a certain number of seats in the new legislature and no talk of independence.)

Yet the most astute observers see this as an exercise in unrealism. “The problem is, as long as they avoid the issue, there will be an unsatisfactory status quo,” Peter Palmer, a political analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, was reported as saying this week. “I think Albanian parties will try to test the limit. We will see a strained relationship emerging.”

First, in the early ‘90s, the Europeans did nothing to help the beleaguered Kosovars; then they fought the American-led bombing campaign that freed Kosovo; then they worried about a “Greater Albania,” which turned out to be a total nonstarter. Now they just want to control the place by restricting the power that a democratically elected government legitimately should have.

It seems Kosovo needs more than independence from Serbia. It also needs independence from the meddlesome interests of the internationalists.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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