A bad model for Iraq

Observations on Kosovo

The international bureaucrats who administer Kosovo, along with the 20,000 Nato troops in the province, may have expressed surprise at this month's Albanian mini-uprising. But then, both of these occupying forces have spent much of the past five years smugly congratulating themselves on the "most successful" UN peacekeeping mission there has ever been.

Liberated from their Serbian tormentors, Kosovar Albanians are supposed to be enjoying the rule of law, bigger and better roads and some of the best restaurants in the Balkans.

Yet there is chronic discontent, derived as much from lack of hope and economic stagnation as from ethnic hatred. Kosovo has indeed received more aid, money and support than any other war-ravaged state to date, but it is unfinished business.

Its foreign guardians are nowhere near building a viable society, and they have no exit strategy, either. Worse, there is an indelible sense that Unmik (the UN mission in Kosovo) has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. On their fat-cat salaries, the internationals are widely perceived as self-serving profiteers, while among the locals only a small elite of translators and landlords are prospering.

Corruption is alleged to exist at the highest levels of the UN mission. Last year, a senior German bureaucrat was imprisoned after being found guilty of embezzlement during his tenure as chairman of the Kosovo Electric Company.

More than half the Kosovar popula- tion of two million live on or below the poverty line. The province still belongs formally to Serbia and Montenegro and, without independence, it cannot even receive credits and loans. There are no financial incentives to attract back Serbian refugees (there are only 100,000 ethnic Serbs left in the province) and that is partly why there are few signs of a multicultural society developing.

Oddly, the latest violence coincided with a visible warming of inter-ethnic relations. On the streets of Pristina, the capital, Albanians and Serbs had begun to mingle freely, and UN officials could point out Belgrade registration plates on passing cars.

Privately, these same officials concede that it would have been better if Kosovo's status had been settled when the UN mandate to run the province was drawn up. Kosovar Albanian leaders say that this month's violence would never have erupted if Kosovo had already been independent. But Unmik has set out numerous hurdles that must be cleared before the question of the province's status can even be addressed.

"What we are doing is social engineering," says one Unmik spokeswoman, unflinchingly. "I know that sounds terribly patronising, but it's the case. These people don't know how to govern yet."

If Kosovo has taught the world anything, it is that nation-building is neither cheap nor easy. It is a perfect example of the west's failure to follow through with resolute political action once triumphant troops have moved in. That Kosovo should be used as a model for Iraq is, frankly, frightening.

Helena Smith is a foreign correspondent for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The power of martyrdom