What ever happened to Kosovo?
September 3, 2003
Last summer, when the collision course with Iraq was becoming more clear, my mind wandered back for some reason to Kosovo.
What had happened to this tiny region (about 10,000 square kilometers as compared to Colorado’s 256,000) that our U.S.-led coalition had liberated from Slobodan Milosevic in 1999? Was the peacekeeping working? Was the economy being rebuilt? Were Americans still popular? How was the transition from the UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) going?
In short, were there lessons that could be applied to a potential war and rebuilding within Iraq?
By sheer chance, I learned that a Boulder friend from Democratic politics, Dr. Sherrie Wolff, was working as a consultant for the National Democratic Institute, which promotes democratic governance and trains legislators around the world. Since she was actually consulting in Kosovo, Sherrie offered to set up some appointments for me and in mid-March I took a short flight from Barcelona to Zurich and another one on to Pristina.
I was met at the airport by Ermil “Ed” Dida, a very bright young guy who would be my guide, interpreter and driver through five intense days of official visits and travel into the countryside and Macedonia. We worked our way to Pristina and cruised up Clinton Boulevard, where he pointed out a mural of our ex-president, smiling down from above. Soon we arrived at the Victory hotel, which has a Statue of Liberty prominently displayed on its roof.
After the anti-war demonstrations I’d seen in Barcelona, it was a pleasure to be in what seemed like one of the few places in the world where Americans are still loved.
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During the visit I met with a number of the new Kosovar Cabinet ministers, U.N. officials and consultants, local farmers, small-business people, journalists, legislators and Americans working on contract as police officers. Whether standing at bus stops or working in carwashes, many local people let me take their pictures and often spoke good English. They formed my strongest impression of Kosovo – that of a dynamic and attractive people.
One of the most surprising meetings was with Bajram Rexhepi, the articulate new prime minister. When I arrived at his office, I was dumbfounded to find some 50 reporters waiting. Apparently they thought I was leading a group of wealthy American investors who were about to commit large sums to Kosovo!
Several things became clear almost immediately.
First, there is a tremendous desire to make up for the lost Milosevic years and, in political terms, take over governance from the United Nations. The Kosovars are energetic, well-trained in English, pro-American and ready to move ahead.
The process of democracy is proceeding intensely. I attended a National Democratic Institute training session for Kosovar legislators and was amazed at how excited and involved they were (as a former Colorado state representative, I remember how bored we always were with such training sessions).
Second, I always felt a complete sense of security. I’m not sure how the ratio of military and peacekeepers compares to Iraq, but I certainly felt at ease everywhere we went.
Third, the economy is the big issue. Because many of the older ethnic Albanians were killed during the Milosevic years, Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe. Their level of unemployment is enormous. As the prime minister said to me, “if they don’t find jobs, they’ll either leave the country or turn to crime.”
Most of the work they’re doing now is menial – selling dark glasses, CDs or phone cards on the streets, or working in some of the small but tasty and inexpensive restaurants. A number, however, are working for the UNMIK or one of the individual consulting firms like the National Democratic Institute. For example, my guide, Ed, makes more money in a week translating for UNMIK than his father, a doctor, makes in a month. So, if the U.N. mission is phased down, it will result in a loss of many of the best jobs.
The major economic project is privatization. Working through the Kosovo Trust Agency (KTA), the plan is to take about 350 state-owned companies or “socially owned enterprises” and gradually privatize them in the hope of attracting investors.
The first tender, opened on May 15, included a manufacturer of electric fuses, a limestone quarry, an engineering company, two brick producers and a manufacturer of refrigeration units. It was scheduled to remain open for about three months. A second tender began in July.
From what I could see it was a much more transparent process than, for example, Mexico’s privatizations under President Carlos Salinas, but Kosovo’s process may also be a more difficult one. The world economy is weak, Kosovo gets little attention, and these companies have had little maintenance or investment in years.
Nonetheless, I would encourage potential investors to check the Web site, http://www.kta-kosovo.org and learn more about these companies.
Kosovo does have good investment opportunities. There is a great deal of good farmland that is largely unused. In fact, most of their food is brought in from Macedonia at an excessive cost. It also has some of Europe’s largest coal deposits. And Kosovo has a young and well-educated work force that seems much more aggressive about finding work than many of the Spanish and French youths I’ve met. They’re also much more pro-American.
When I was there, many Kosovars were critical of Michael Steiner, Kofi Annan’s special representative in Kosovo and a symbol of UNMIK’s continuing and, they believe, excessive control. It seems to me, however, that it’s better for the United Nations to be overly protective than to be spread too thin, as American troops seem to be in Iraq. The United Nations, with all of its different nationalities, also seems more immune to “anti-colonial” criticism than America’s relatively narrow coalition in Iraq.
I don’t purport to be an expert on Kosovo as a result of one five-day trip. Yet what I saw made several things crystal clear: The military effort saved thousands and thousands of lives, the peacekeeping effort is working, the process of building democratic institutions is progressing and, most important, these dynamic and attractive people want to make up for their lost years.
The big challenges in Kosovo are the economy and the process of transferring governance to the Kosovars. I hope Americans will keep an eye on Kosovo during this transition. This is an American success story, and we need to be sure that it has a happy ending.
Morgan Smith is a former Colorado legislator who also spent 15 years in state economic development under governors Lamm and Romer. He now splits his time between Denver and Barcelona, Spain.