Tom Walker says that Tony Blair is too busy doing global management to bother much about the consequences of Nato’s humanitarian intervention in the Balkans
From the kitchen balcony of our old flat in Pristina, we used to look out on a rubbish dump in the foreground, then the precipitous and rutted Plevljanska Street, and across that to the old Orthodox church of St Nikola. To the right of our flat were some tumbledown one-storey buildings housing Serbs and gypsies.
The gypsies used to clean up the rubbish now and again, but never to the point where it all disappeared. Sasa the Serb used to sell us bootlegged petrol, which he nonchalantly glugged into our car tanks while pulling on a cigarette. Thus it was that generally we kept our distance from Sasa — as we did from the youths who lived in the priest’s house by the church, who took a pot shot at our balcony once and removed a large piece of masonry. But Pop Rade, the priest, was an OK sort of guy, and I once sold him a Crooklock for his stolen Audi. Life in the ’hood was a little uneasy at times, but by and large we muddled along all right.
That was back in 1999. Sasa is long gone, as are the gypsies, their impoverished little shacks demolished and built over. But until a fortnight ago the church had survived, albeit thanks to regular sentries being posted on its gates by Nato’s Kosovo force. Then it too was burned to the ground, leaving only the rubbish dump as a sort of immutable legacy of the UN/Nato recipe for multi-ethnic harmony.
This was the sort of thing that we were told wasn’t meant to happen again: 3,600 Serbs pushed from their homes, which were then looted and burned along with a good number of their churches and monasteries. Britain sent 700 more troops, and in the Commons there were some glib remarks about the problems of youthful nations. ‘We have known all along, when we committed ourselves to resolving the terrible ethnic conflict in the whole of the former republic of Yugoslavia, that it was going to take some time,’ said Jack Straw. ‘I can’t put a specific time on it.’
You bet, Jack. Let’s say a century or so, eh? The plain fact is that Kosovo, or what we were told Kosovo was to become, isn’t working.
Where did it all go wrong, now that we cast our minds back to those distant days when the Prime Minister was cutting his teeth in the art of ethical warmongering? Five years is a long time in the vast sweep of New Labour’s foreign peregrinations, and we’ve managed to pack in quite a bit of bombing since we hit the old Yugoslavia. But back then we were told that Slobodan Milosevic, our biggest bogeyman since Hitler, had to stop his heinous clampdown on the long-suffering Albanians. As Straw’s predecessor, Robin Cook, so nobly put it: Nato ‘cannot permit a rebirth of fascism in Europe’.
Ignoring the fact that our great libertarian friends from the Kosovo Liberation Army were as blind to ceasefires as the Serbs, and after lots of ‘monitoring’ (insertion of spies/target identifiers) and a few dubious massacres and then a very dubious one (Racak), we moved into peace conference mode. At Rambouillet the Serb delegation (minus Milosevic, who doesn’t travel well) was told that Nato must have access to all its territory, and not just Kosovo. Oddly, they didn’t sign up, and the Nato bombers warmed their engines.
Caught off guard by Milosevic’s intransigence, Mr Blair badly needed a selling point for this little jolly and, with Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Albanians, he duly got it. With the pace of events, he neatly skipped past lie number one: that the cleansing (operation ‘horseshoe’ — remember that one?) had started before the Nato campaign. It hadn’t. Through the air strikes on Yugoslavia of the balmy spring and summer of 1999, the momentum was kept up with the promise of mass graves of Albanians to be found in the aftermath. There were satellite pictures and eyewitness accounts to whet our appetites.
Any of this sound familiar? For Slobodan Milosevic, read Saddam Hussein. For mass graves, read WMDs. In this age of instant reckoning, of the television clip and the soundbite, war is cheaply sold in the right package. What is not so easy is the aftermath.
Since 1999, the KLA have not proved to be the great defenders of human rights they were once cracked up to be: some 350,000 Serbs and other minorities have fled, and of the 100,000 left, many will surely go. Empowered, the Albanians have fulfilled virtually none of the conditions the UN has laid down as prerequisites for independence, but nonetheless it is now universally agreed that that is the only answer. The thugs have won the argument, and the last thing Nato or the prototypical EU defence force wants is to have to take on the inheritors of the KLA in their own backyard.
I am married to a Serb. My father-in-law was a Serb policeman (albeit a traffic cop). I am sometimes accused of being ‘pro-Serb’ in the way I look at Kosovo. I once reported seeing a tractor pulling a trailerload of mujahedin in Kosovo, and was told that I was not only pro-Serb, but fantasising.
Three Albanian children died before the latest violence, I am reminded, and the Serbs started it. Well yes, maybe, but if an Albanian child drowns in northern Mitrovica does that automatically justify dashing out and burning down the nearest monastery? Or razing 350 houses, and more than 20 churches?
There seems still to be an odd political correctness to reporting the suffering of stateless Albanians, despite the fact that for the four years in which they have held the province their leaders have said nothing about the steady trickle of killings of Serbs. I receive regular emails from Albanian agencies in Pristina arguing that when a Serb village is wiped from the map, it is somehow Belgrade’s fault. Or if not, then the UN’s. ‘Give us independence and all will be well’ is the mantra.
Those Serbs who remain in Kosovo, and those not living in Mitrovica, which adjoins Serbia itself, are sitting ducks. The nameless Albanians who funded and invented the KLA from Geneva, New York and elsewhere are pursuing their deadly plan.
‘There are elements out there who think that as long as there is anything Serb left, there is a pretext for Belgrade,’ one of my oldest diplomatic sources in the region told me last week. ‘There is a minority of wild men who want to cleanse the land of everything Serbian.’
Still, Mr Blair doesn’t have to listen to my witterings. From his own ranks, Alice Mahon just about hit the nail on the head when she said, ‘Kosovo is a monoethnic state run by the Mafia, with ethnic minorities living in guarded enclaves.’
But will he care? The New Labour Kosovo customer satisfaction helpline has long since been pulled. Mr Blair has bigger fish to fry these days, doing global management shoulder to shoulder with Dubya. Afghanistan, Iraq, now probably Israel and Palestine; and all the time that golden constant of the war on terror. The fact is that our Prime Minister is probably just too damned important for little old Kosovo now.
If he had any humanity, he would fly to Pristina, and take Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovan leader, and all the other Albanian puppets with him on a tour of their latest works. They could scuff their shoes in the ashes of the Devic monastery in that birthplace of the Albanian renaissance, the Drenica valley, and they could then travel on south to Prizren and see for themselves the charred remains of the Church of the Archangels. These were precious monuments — truly cradles of a faith — and had little to do with the ugly concrete reminders of retreating orthodoxy put up by Milosevic in haste in the 1980s and 1990s. Blowing up the latter over the past few years was perhaps understandable; burning down monuments from the 14th century — a legacy th at any Kosovan could have been proud of — was nihilistic in the extreme. Apparently the Kosovan parliament has set up a fund to rebuild them and all the houses; I’ll believe that when I see it.
We trundle on in this demented rollercoaster towards independence. The Serbs in Mitrovica will no doubt stay, many as mad and thuggish as their Albanian counterparts across the river Ibar in which the three children perished. My Serb friends from Kosovo tell me that communities will hang on in the middle, around the Gracanica monastery and around Gniljane in the east. A few thousand more will cling to the slopes of the ski resort of Brezovica and Strpce. Apart from the Mitrovica lot, imagining any of them staying beyond the next 20 years is hard.
With whom will the new Kosovo trade? Currently 80 per cent of business is with Serbia and all other possible partners seem less than promising. The great mother country, that bastion of many an EU accession treaty, Albania itself, is hardly the emerging economic tiger of the region, and Macedonia and Montenegro, both with Slav majorities, are most unlikely to embrace the new government of Pristina. Besides, there are bloody great mountains in the way. All the decent roads lead to Serbia.
As with much of his foreign policy grandstanding, the final goal of Tony Blair’s Kosovo adventure was not thought through. Thanks to Rugova’s non-cooperation with Serbia throughout the 1990s, the fledgling state has an uneducated, unemployed mass of disaffected youth, easily whipped up by the sinister ringleaders to perform whatever odious task is necessary in the Kosovo year-zero project. Belgrade has long moaned about the drugs, but to little effect.
Saddest of all, perhaps, are the decent Albanians who have to sit by in silence. I would too; Kosovo is the sort of place where dissenters get sniffed out then snuffed out pretty quickly. Last month one of them sent me an email to let me know that he and his family were surviving. ‘The situation seems under control,’ he wrote. ‘KFOR has finally appeared (after a few days), and the rest you can imagine ... Kristallnacht. Keep in touch.’
Tom Walker is the diplomatic correspondent for the Sunday Times.