In Kosovo with Political Tours: Mar-Apr 2013
Originally, this was to be a several week trip and include Serbia-Bosnia as well as Kosovo. But the Serbia-Bosnia segment was canceled so it was eight days in Kosovo. Which worked for I will return this Fall to the Balkans with three compadres, with whom I have wandered about Oman, Rajasthan and the Copper Canyon. While It was a long way to come for eight days - San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Pristina - it was well worth it.
How do I start to describe this rather unique tour?
First, there’s the Who? Four interested travelers and five professional journalist/photographers, two of whom had been in Kosovo, early on, during time of strife. Guiding us about was the owner-operator of Political Tours, who had lived in the Balkans during assignments as a journalist, a British diplomat and author and the ever patient and all around good guy, a Kosovo political affairs and foreign policy expert.
What? Political Tours study group into Kosovo, the step child of the Balkans. Political Tours provides an opportunity to take a serious look into the inner workings of a country’s political and cultural life.
When?: 28 Mar-6 Apr 2013.
Where? Based in Pristina all but one night; drove to Kacanik and then stayed over at Brezonica (the country’s ski center) in the Shar Mountains, to Prizren, then on to Decani (magnificent monastery). Then day trips: Gazimestan (Memorial of the Battle of Kosovo claimed as the Serbs' spiritual home), Metrovica (where the Serb and Albanian communities are separated by a blocked bridge with the Bosniacs as Mr. Inbetween), and Gracanica (a Serb community with another impressive monastery).
Why? My long time interest in the Balkans, begun in folk dancing days. Subsequently, was the breakup of Yugoslavia and then, Serbian efforts at Ethnic Cleansing. I had been to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia - I wanted to see the remaining parts of the pinochle of which Kosovo was an important piece. And I wanted to understand what was really going on.
Even after years of bitter conflict, stopped only by the intervention of the international community, Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence. For the ethnic Serb minority living in Kosovo, there are parallel governments - Serbia claims jurisdiction, particularly with those living close to the border. While I was in Kosovo, the two Prime Ministers, both strong nationalists, were meeting in Brussels, to deal with their differences, a necessity for Serbia to be considered for European Union membership.
Arrangements had been made for us to meet with a cross section of interested parties: from political to religious to returnees; representatives and ambassadors from Britain, Norway, Germany and Russia, the later a supporter of Serbia; members of the Kosovo Assembly; a EULEX representative; people from the opposition party; think tank and independent production staff. The most moving experience was listening to a survivor of the 1999 Kacanik massacre, now a nurse at a rural medical center. The most positive experience was with young Kosovo entrepreneurs, choosing an investment in their country’s future rather than remaining in the West The most interesting experience was with a Serbian Orthodox priest who took a moderate stance and likely, was not typical of the other priests.
At Metrovica - the hot spot, the City of the bridge - Kosovo maintains an office for the northern sector, the ethnic Serb enclave. The woman who heads it is the best example of a non political, reality based civil servant. Because of her approach, she is trusted and used by the locals in their efforts to navigate the dual Serb-Kosovo administration. She was superb.
Among other experiences, we spent time at the Roma community, dirt poor. but with hope for the young eg: there was a young man wanting to become part of the Kosovo police. Also, briefly sat in on a War Crimes trial, later meeting with the local police official; Kosovo police are considered to be relatively free of corruption, often a problem for the country.
Besides the local police, there are Eulex officers (European supported) and KFOR troops (NATO provided) as backup. At the two monasteries were KFOR forces. At one, Italians managed a check point, holding passports during your visit. At the other, two unarmed Swedes, strolled about. At the Battle of Kosovo Polje Memorial site, two Kosovo police manned the entrance.
There is a lot of good stuff going on: Documentary film festival. in Prizren. A vibrant night life in Pristina. Skateboarders, including a girl, happily performing for the photographer. We did a bit of sightseeing: the Bill Clinton statue with the Hillary clothing shop nearby, the Rugova Memorial and the Ethnological Museum. Just walking about this slap dash city with its diverse architecture, from Ottoman to Austrian-Hungarian to Communist concrete to glass and steel modern was fun.
Despite the Muslim ethnic Albanian majority, there were very few outward semblances of the religion other than mosques - I saw few head scarves excepting the Roma community, and only one abaya. (Same was true in Albania when I was there eight years ago.). But, unless there are more employment opportunities for the many young people, that could change. We were reminded several times that 50% of the population was under 25 years old.
I was reminded of other schism, particularly the Palestine-Isreali conflict. The Kosovo Serbs tend to identify with Serbia, not with Kosovo. And that is certainly isn’t encouraged by Serbia., who keeps stirring up the pot. And until that gets settled, there won’t be the investment necessary to keep Kosovo alive as part of the Western community. .
As a country, it is beautiful. Near Gazimestan, most of us clambered up a hillside with a fantastic view, despite the pollution from coal plants. The people were uniformly friendly to strangers - though admittedly they have had experience with the internationals that have flooded the country in the past fourteen years.
Conclusions: The relations between Kosovo and Serbia need to be resolved. And the economy needs a boost - foreign investment is desperately needed, but first, the Serb-Kosovo relationship needs be regularized. And that isn’t happening, for as I write this, the AP reports failure of the Brussels conference. So no EU for Serbia and no foreign investment for Kosovo.
Accommodation: Couldn’t have been better. A 6* hotel in the midst of central Pristina. And in the mountains, a very comfortable lodge. Much nicer than my usual.
Food: Almost always, only the best of local and international restaurants, including lunch at a kula, an old Albanian home, and a private residence. There was a conscious effort for us to experience Kosovo cuisine.
Cost: Given the exchange rate, the tour was expensive but was inclusive of everything. It cost $4100 but was well worth it - this was my second outing with Political Tours (I was with them in Libya) and I will return. Airfare: $1283.
NB: if you want to see us live, we were on Al Jazeera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5vcXoXQU2g