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Alphabet Soup and the Asshole of Europe

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
11.06.2000 | POLITICS

As Naderites in the otherwise politically comatose USA were excreting a thin green ooze over the "super-rallies" that saw 10,000 power charged progressives pack into sports arenas for celebrity-studded, rafter-shaking attempts to raise William Jennings Bryan from the dead, I too attended a super-rally of sorts.

On a perfect fall afternoon in late October, I packed into an outdoor soccer stadium in downtown Pristina, the heavily bruised capital of Kosovo, for a rally staged by the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). Like the Greens, the PDK offered an impressive list of speakers and entertainment; unlike the Greens, the PDK did not charge admission. Like the Greens, the PDK turned out a hard-core of passionate followers; unlike the Greens, the PDK couldn't get Phil Donahue.

The PDK differs from the Greens in several other respects as well. For example, the Greens are not the political face of a regional mafia network that sometimes doubles as a guerrilla liberation army. The Greens have not, so far as I know, rocket-launched grenades into the offices of political opponents in recent weeks. Whereas Green candidate Ralph Nader is by all accounts a nice guy, PDK leader Hashim Thaci would happily arrange for you to be capped, stripped and gutted, should your political activities necessitate the gesture.

The energy of the rally was something between the Icecapades and a scene from Gladiator. Children walked the aisles selling sunflower seeds and soda out of cardboard boxes, while firecrackers and the occasional celebratory gunshot punctured a cacophony of cheers and "K-L-A" chants. Heavily armed KFOR soldiers monitored the situation from atop the bombed-out buildings that surround the battered stadium, many of them scanning the scene through target-scopes atop tripod-mounted machine guns. The capacity crowd of 40,000 included seven year-olds with painted faces as well as old men in cream-colored skullcaps. While I would hesitate to use the term "family event," it drew an impressive cross-section of society.

There was no violence expected because the PDK was the violent party, and they were partying. The Liberal Party of Kosovo (LDK)--which would go on to win the majority of local offices the following week--had anxiously staged their own rally the day before with no surprises. It was the LDK and their iconic pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova who had the most to fear by taking an open stage the week before elections--not the thug Thaci.

By the time PDK leaders dramatically emerged from a side entrance and walked towards the stage flanked by bodyguards, the chants had grown deafening. Throughout the city center cars blared their horns; the Red Flags of Kosova seemed to hang from every stick capable of supporting one. My only reference point for such a display was downtown Chicago 1998, when the National Guard was called out to monitor the pagans as they celebrated the NBA title. Like then, I did my best to fit in, discreetly scanning the scene with horizontally sliding eyeballs, clapping when everyone else did and cheering along at the big applause lines. Independence for Kosovo! Go team. We didn't fight a war for a regime change in Belgrade! We will rock you. When a torrent of traditional Albanian music came pouring through the sound system and Miss Albania 2000 started shaking her ass, I actually felt a swelling of pride coming from somewhere. Groupthink had taken over. Someone get me a flag.

When the music stopped, I checked myself and remembered that these were bad, bad men. They were running for office to avoid any encroachment upon the gangland death grip they have upon the economy of Kosovo, such as it is. They favor independence as the LDK does, but pursue the goal with a "by any means necessary" philosophy that does not bode well for what the press officers call 'regional stability'. Many analysts expect that the party will resist the establishment of non-PDK local governments, possibly taking on the western monitors whose job it is to oversee the delivery of democracy to Kosovo. If the PDK chooses not to relinquish its power in the face of electoral rejection, then the international community will most likely decide that their time here is up, and return to Geneva, Brussels and Washington, where regret and hand-wringing will accompany the bald fact that the rich democracies aren't ready to lose blood in the name of institution building in troubled Kosovo. Then the LDK and their majority of supporters will be forced to deal with the PDK like the proverbial barber who wants to keep his windows--and knee-caps-- in one piece.

To be honest, a democratic and prosperous Kosovo is a project that it is difficult to feel confident about. The hatred between Serbs and ethnic Albanians remains palpable (one UN worker was recently shot in Albanian Pristina for absentmindedly answering a question in Serbian), the KLA criminal hierarchy controls whatever it wants, and the economy is in near apocalyptic ruins. Perhaps the best illustration of the state of things is the Pristina City Hospital, which is something you would expect to find after a nuclear holocaust: broken windows, a handful of worn down doctors using scarce and ancient equipment, unidentifiable fluids on the floor, wailing coming from dirty rooms that smell of unchanged sheets, cigarette smoke and stained yellow death.

The city itself is a huge trash dump, the stench of molten plastic from trash fires competing with the smell of fresh trash for dominant position in the night air. The visible landscape on the road from Pristina to Mitravice to the north is a bleak stretch of refuse, burning tires, carcasses of rusted out cars, buildings in various stages of destruction, dilapidated ghost factories, and rabid, scavenging street dogs. It is as if huge swathes of the northern half of the province were some ghastly dystopic 'superfund' site. Normal trash collection-- never mind happy suburban recycling--seems about as distant a prospect as a Jaguar dealership in the area.

But trash collection or any other bread-and-butter issue usually associated with local elections wasn't on the agenda at either rally--OSCE-funded campaign literature notwithstanding. The numbers and passions that came out during the first local elections since the province became an international protectorate last year were about Independence From Belgrade, something universally desired across the Albanian political spectrum in Kosovo. This goal puts them at odds with the scattered Serbs left in Kosovo, the new regime in Belgrade, and NATO, and it is probably only a matter of time before the West's official position of "constructive ambiguity" on the subject explodes in a shitstorm of bullets, bombs and flying trash.

But until that happens, the alphabet soup of international agencies and NGO's will maintain their overwhelming presence in the province. Which is good for the locals in Pristina: the economy of the capital is largely dependent on the internationals and their carpetbags full of Deutschemarks. In the restaurants, the internet cafes, the bars, English can be heard in just about every accent, from Southern Louisiana to Northern Irish. Watching them congregate in bars at night, they look eerily similar to a group of college undergrads filling the last-stop bar in town to capacity, as if they were in Madison, Wisconsin and not what Mark Ames has called the 'permanent asshole of Europe.' They freely admit that the atmosphere they live in is like summer camp: away from home with a small group of people, gossiping and fucking and ultimately losing a healthy perspective on where they are or why. The OSCE people especially have a reputation for being pathetic careerist preps, e-mailing each other all-day and jockeying for position when the next good slot opens up in Moscow or wherever.

For both political and economic reasons, most Albanians are desperate to keep the oft-obnoxious internationals in Kosovo. This is especially true for Joe NATO, who they see as their sole protection against a resurgent threat from the North. If the sight of NATO and US and EU flags all over Pristina hadn't driven this home, a conversation I had with some Albanians in a café did.

I was minding my own business when I heard the strange babbling next to me punctuated by heavily accented versions of the words "Clarence Thomas" and "watchdog party" Sure enough, a group of Albanian men were discussing the US presidential election. Were they talking about the Green Party and Nader? Yep.

"We're very angry at Nader," one of them said. "If he costs Gore the election, it is us who will suffer."

They were referring to Bush's statements hinting that a Republican administration would lighten US commitments in the Balkans. They were terrified at the prospect, and made an argument against voting for Nader that was compelling coming from men who had been forced out of their homes at gunpoint. It was then, in the early evening hours after the PDK rally, that I realized the Naderfests occurring in Chicago and New York, seemingly a million miles a way, were in a real sense connected to the rally I had just witnessed. The middle-class progressive from suburban New York and the unemployed Albanian in a bleak Pristina café, both arguing about Ralph Nader, both, for entirely alien reasons, distressed at the turns politics were taking in my hyper-powered nation of birth: the United States of America, the biggest eight-hundred pound gorilla the world had ever known.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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