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Kosovo’s other colonizers

Kosovo hit the headlines recently as the region shuffled towards independence. On 17 February, following Serbia’s re-election of pro-Western President Boris Tadic, Kosovo Premier Hasim Thaci made a formal declaration of independence, which was quickly recognized officially by Britain, France, Germany and the US, among others. In theory at least, this tolls the bell for Serbia’s influence in the region; but it also signals the beginning of the end for Kosovo’s other colonizers.

Since NATO intervened to end Kosovo’s bitter war with Milosevic’s Serbia in 1999, the region has played host to a large community of international citizens working for the United Nations Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK). Post-conflict, everything from rebuilding to policing has been overseen by the international community, and personnel from around the world have brought pieces of home with them. Visitors to this Balkan backwater may be surprised to find sushi restaurants side by side with traditional burek cafes, but, as Kosovans have discovered, it is not only culinary culture that the internationals have imported.

When you are stopped by a UN police officer,’ says Xhelal, a member of the Albanian self-determination movement Levizja Vetëvendosje!, ‘you check to see where he’s from. If he’s from Denmark, he’ll treat you a lot differently than if he’s from Pakistan. Once I was letting down the tyres of a UN vehicle and an American police officer drew his gun.’

From 2005, Vetëvendosje! activists engaged in various forms of peaceful protest against UNMIK, which they argued had outlived its purpose. But on 10 February 2007, the stand-off between UNMIK and Vetëvendosje! turned bloody: two protesters were shot dead by UN police during a demonstration, and a number of others were seriously injured. Mon Balaj and Arben Xheladini were unarmed and retreating from teargas when they were shot in the head with rubber bullets that were 12 years out of date. The police who fired the bullets came from Romania – a country notorious for its heavy-handed policing of demonstrations.

In July 2007 the UN’s international prosecutor concluded that the killings were unlawful, yet it seems increasingly unlikely that the families of the victims will get any kind of justice. Under the Privileges and Immunities Convention, all UN staff enjoy immunity from their host country’s law in the course of their work. The police who fired the bullets were quickly repatriated, and to date the Romanian Government has failed to co-operate with requests to bring them back to Kosovo. UNMIK have stated that their investigation is closed, and no further action will be taken, leading one activist to say: ‘Under Tito and Milosevic we were killed for protesting, so what exactly has changed?’

Following Thaci’s declaration of Kosovan independence, UNMIK’s days are numbered. In June it is due to hand over to a new EU mission which will work towards Kosovo gaining EU membership. Whether this mission can improve on the UN’s pitiful performance remains to be seen. The events of February 2007 prove that international missions are only as good as the sum of their parts.

*Hannah Smith*

New Internationalist issue 410 magazine cover This article is from the April 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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