How Tony Blair is still revered as the saviour of the Kosovan Albanians

Many Kosovan children, now aged 18, were named “Tonibler” by grateful parents in honour of our former PM.

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There are many Tony Blairs in Kosovo and I was hoping to meet at least one of them. Most are aged 18 and were named by grateful parents in honour of our former prime minister, who is revered in Kosovo. Blair was instrumental in persuading Nato leaders to bomb Serbia in 1999 and thus became the saviour of the Kosovan Albanians.

Our guide, Fatos, met us at Pristina airport. He was one of more than a million Kosovans who were brutally forced out of their country during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He’s probably what our government would call a “model refugee”. He sought asylum in the UK, where his children were educated at British universities. Now he’s returned to the country of his birth, setting up a successful travel business. The Nato KFOR peacekeeping force, which came to Kosovo to protect civilians, is still here. Nowadays Fatos takes the soldiers, who have a lot of time on their hands, on team-building exercises trekking in the mountains.

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We are here to hike in the Accursed Mountains. The name sounds scary but belies the landscape’s beauty and the friendliness of the people who live here. I’m travelling with Pete, my oldest friend, and we first came to what was then Yugoslavia in 1977. We camped wild in a corn field only to be woken at gunpoint by an angry peasant wielding his old Second World War rifle.

Things turned around quickly when he realised we were British. “Tito, Churchill, Brothers!” he chanted repeatedly. Churchill, of course, armed Tito’s communist partisans and we now reaped the reward, as the old man led us back to his shack, and fed us on lumps of traditional pork fat washed down with several glasses of raki.

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Fatos drives us in his shiny new British-registered Range Rover towards the disputed Montenegrin border. This mountain trail has only recently been opened to walkers and you’d be hard-pressed to find scenery like it. I love the drama of the mountains: lunar-like rocky peaks soaring into clouds contrast with the verdant tranquillity of the meadows, lush with flowers and bilberries.

Shepherds have lived here for centuries, practising a subsistence lifestyle with herds of sheep and a few cows and horses. Now the tourists are inadvertently destroying it. The cash from our euros undermines the old way of life, as modernity drives on relentlessly. I’ve heard it said that in poor countries the education of girls will be the engine of social change, and that was evident here. It’s the teenage girls, not the parents, who speak fluent English and usher us into the rickety wooden guest house, where we have lunch. The food is delicious if you like a daily diet of tomatoes, cucumber and, always, feta-like cheese.

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Walking in the mountains is great for the soul and gives time to reflect on what is important in life. I’ve been best friends with Pete for more than 40 years and we’re struck by the obvious thought that we will always be friends, and one of us will have to speak at the other’s funeral. Oddly it doesn’t feel depressing; just more bonding.

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As we travel in a battered minibus through Kosovo towards the Albanian border, the mosques and the churches signal which villages are Muslim or Orthodox Serbian. For an overwhelmingly Muslim country, women dress in Western clothes. Boris Johnson would have been thrilled because I saw only one woman in the niqab!

In fact, in Albania I observed more Catholic nuns wearing veils than Muslim women. As much as 80 per cent of the population is Muslim but I was told less than 10 per cent go to the mosque regularly. For the former communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, even that level of religious faith would have been unacceptable. He declared the country 100 per cent atheist in 1967.

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The capital, Tirana, dazzles with vitality. The former mayor, Edi Rama, transformed the drab communist city by splashing bright paint on all the state buildings. He’s now the Socialist prime minister and something of an Albanian “rock star”. In a previous life he was an international basketball player and then a sculptor and artist. Outside his office a fluorescent light flashes irregularly. When asked about it, he said it was “art”.

We’ve arranged to meet his press secretary, Endri Fuga, who is a protégé of Alastair Campbell. My BBC colleague Amol Rajan told me that when he worked at the Foreign Office 15 years ago, a spy came in to say he’d been to Tirana and concluded Albania wasn’t so much a country as five criminal gangs that surrounded themselves in the apparatus of a state. Corruption was endemic and reform necessary if Albania were to join the EU.  Endri thinks joining will take eight years but ordinary citizens seem more impatient. The retort when people discovered we were British was, “Now you’re leaving, can we have your place, please?!”

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When I asked Endri what Campbell had taught him, his face lit up. Using the vocabulary of Blairism, he talked about the Third Way, and showed me his “grid”. Blimey, I’ve been in journalism for 25 years but Endri was the first spin doctor to let me see his “grid”, the holy grail of news management. He said the biggest thrill when he visited the UK was not meeting the former Labour prime minister, but being in a black cab knowing he was being driven to his hero Campbell’s house. He couldn’t believe Campbell lived in such an ordinary street.

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I never did meet a Tony Blair, or even a Tonibler as they’re known in the Balkans, but I did find Blairism alive and kicking in the war-haunted, far south-east of Europe. 

Phil Jones is the editor of the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis