I was once asked if I thought the Northern Ireland conflict was difficult to comprehend. Not really, I replied. What confounded me was that as so many people within Northern Ireland understood the various factors involved, why work towards any resolution took so long.
Put another way, I found comprehending the geo-political situation of former Yugoslavia more difficult. For most of its former republics, resolutions were via the bloody wars of the 1990s.
And then there’s Kosovo, with its independence declared in 2008, but how much resolved?
For the sake of my day job, I had to get a good grasp of the situation of Kosovo. A good friend endorsed my short-listed choice of Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Tim Judah, Balkan Correspondent for The Economist.
In the Author’s Note, Judah says that his book is to give general readers a straightforward introduction. He well achieves this. But a “general reader” who has some education in international relations, or at least is an avid reader of The Economist, will find the introduction that much easier to absorb. This is not because Kosovo is not easily accessible; it is. But there is a good amount of history and culture to take in the book’s concise 160 pages.
Judah does well in the first two chapters to provide cultural and historical overviews of Albanians and Serbs. Of course, this has to be a little superficial in such a generalist book. But an important highlight is that for Albanians, and particularly for those residing in Kosovo, it was language more than the role of the church that influences their nationalism. This contributed to a delayed nation-building — surrounding peoples and places having several hundred years’ head start — with its own consequences.
We are told how the Serbs see Kosovo as their Jerusalem (p. 18), with the full poem provided, “The Downfall of the Serbian Empire”. What interests me is that this is not the only contested place in the world with a Jerusalem-status, the sense of birthright and/or redemption.
The chapters are the right length, covering the essentials while moving you along to the next episode.
As in other contested places, the education system plays an important, often crucial role. For some decades, Albanians enjoyed an Albanian-language education (but while still needing to learn Serbian). However, when Serbian authorities clamped down on this in 1991, an underground, parallel system was created (p. 73). The consequence was that hereafter young Kosovo Albanians would be instilled with more nationalist thinking than under the “brotherhood and unity” era of Yugoslavia. For me, the significance is whether ethnic-based education is part of a wider whole or a particular sect.
Likewise, Judah describes the re-establishment of the Kosovo police service, one of the notable achievements (p. 95), moving from no service at all in 1999 to one comprising over 7,000 officers (6,082 Albanian; 746 Serbs; 414 others) in 2007. However, with Kosovo independence, retaining an integrated, singular police service has become more of a challenge. Here, I hope there are applicable lessons from the recent years of the reform of policing in Northern Ireland.
Judah explains one particularly curiosity — multiple international calling codes (p. 99). Essentially, in the break up of Yugoslavia, Serbia retained code +381. For cell/mobile phones, new Kosovo wasn’t going to use that nor the Serbian +063, so it acquired underused Monaco +377. I can attest that in areas such as Mitrovica, individuals who need to contact both Albanians and Serbs will carry two mobile phones/SIM cards.
There is a good description of the Ahtisaari Plan (setting out Kosovo’s future, sans independence but with “supervised independence”) (Chapter 10). While this plan was blocked by the UN Security Council, all EU members backed it and proceeded to establish an International Civilian Office (ICO), to deal with matters of law and headed by an International Civilian Representative (ICR).
Then, after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the EU replied by providing a Special Representative (EUSR), responsibilities which include “promoting overall EU coordination and coherence in Kosovo”.
The thing is, the ICR and EUSR are the same person: Pieter Feith. On one hand, Feith’s remit is to the EU’s unanimous consent to the Ahtisaari Plan, while on the other hand he serves as EUSR even though not all EU members recognise Kosovo’s independence. This conundrum is not lost on the local population.
Judah also succinctly puts the Kosovo situation in a global context of international relations (Chapter 12). Barring the wars that took place in the region in the 1990s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for the most part, reflected the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in that there was a reverting to previously existing republics (the “R” in USSR). Except Kosovo, which was not a pre-existing republic. Its declaration of independence, or at least EU semi-protectorate de facto status, is an unprecedented situation for the EU, which must proceed intelligently as other nations/subregions express their self-determination.
There’s clearly more to say on this matter, and Judah’s book is not the place for it. Indeed, while those with deeper knowledge of any particular dimension of the Kosovo scene won’t find sustenance by Judah’s overview, I found it an ideal primer and very useful in my subsequent visit. I sincerely recommend Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know as the first book to read in the path of unravelling the threads of politics and history in Kosovo.