Monday 12 November 2001

Lessons from Kosovo

This is a piece I wrote from Pristina for TIME magazine. It ran on 12 November 2001. I was reminded of it in early April 2011, when the editor of an American magazine asked me if they could reprint it as part of an examination of international intervention over the past decades in light of current events in Libya.


Two-and-a-half years after NATO bombers attacked Yugoslavia to force a resolution to the Kosovo conflict, the breakaway region is holding its first general elections on 17 November. The election will lead to a 120-seat assembly and a president, institutions that will hold little power but have great symbolic significance.

Most Kosovars feel they know the outcome of those elections already. Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) is likely to win a majority just as it did in local elections last year, and Rugova will likely be Kosovo's first president. The campaign has mostly been straightforward and without incident, and this lack of excitement is generally seen as a victory for the international community. Being in Kosovo as U.S.-led bombing continues in Afghanistan, I cannot help but think back to 1999 when the same bombers were pelting this country. Like many people here, I find myself wondering what lessons Kosovo holds for the international community and Afghanistan today.

Of course, the two situations have very significant differences. Compared to Afghanistan, Kosovo is a prosperous paradise. The ethnic situation in Kosovo is, for better or worse, much more straightforward. Albanians comprise 90% of the population -- although this is the cold result of over 200,000 ethnic Serbs fleeing after the war -- and what's more, Albanians were overwhelmingly supportive of NATO bombing two-and-a-half years ago. And that support is unflinching. Certainly, many in Afghanistan will be happy to see the end of the brutal Taliban regime, but it is difficult to imagine such universal support of the current bombing a few years down the line.

Indeed, the many differences between the two situations are significant, but the similarities do go beyond the bombers overhead. First and foremost, Kosovo highlights the pitfalls of international involvement immediately after a conflict. Even if Afghanistan avoids the kind of international protectorate status Kosovo has had for over two years, the international community is likely to be the strongest and most important element to a lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Kosovo demonstrates, for example, how the international community walks a tightrope between maintaining political neutrality and trying to encourage leaders who promote peace most fervently. On 27 October, Daan Everts, head of the OSCE mission in Kosovo (OMIK), showed just how easy it is to wobble and slip on that tightrope.

At an election rally for the LDK, Everts openly praised LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova and made it clear that he favoured the LDK over other parties in the election that have direct links to the wartime Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought an armed rebellion against the Serbs for years. Those other parties include the two largest opposition parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), both of which are headed by former KLA leaders and are generally seen as more radical. Everts's motive was clear: he wanted to strengthen the peace by bolstering the more peaceful elements of the Kosovo political scene. Public perception is that he is acting inappropriately. After all, Everts's OMIK is charged with organising the elections, so his impartiality is essential.

Another difficulty for any international administration is the perennial coloniser's problem: the democratic deficit. In Kosovo those that rule the country and control what would be all the key ministries -- internal security, foreign affairs, economy -- are all chosen by and from the international community, not the Kosovars. That begs the question many are now asking both here and abroad: what are these elections for if the resultant president and assembly will have no serious powers? Eventually, a system will have to be introduced to transfer powers from the internationals to the Kosovars themselves.

And that highlights the most important aspect of post-conflict settlement, something that is the same everywhere and something the international community cannot not affect: time. When I flew here over Serbia last week, I could still see many destroyed bridges on the Danube below, the result of NATO bombing in 1999. It takes years to rebuild bombed bridges. It takes even longer to rebuild destroyed societies. Kosovo's elections this week are not the end of that rebuilding; they are only one step on a long journey.

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