Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Interview: Veton Surroi - Sharing The Risks Of Democracy
By Anthony Borden
Veton Surroi is the founder and publisher of Koha Ditore, the leading Albanian daily in Kosovo. A long-time political activist - and regular contributor and friend of IWPR - Veton is a signal voice for democracy in the province.
The launching several years ago of Koha Ditore, staffed by inexperienced but highly committed young journalists, marked a crucial break within Kosovo society from persecution complex towards self-confidence and the ability to assert their rights.
One of two independent members of the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team at Rambouillet, Veton played a central role in salvaging the process - signing his name alone to the commitment in principle, a paper that Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) representatives only finally formally backed several weeks later in Paris.
Long considered to be a future key political figure in Kosovo, Veton, 38, has so far kept independent from organised politics, and claims to be 'just a journalist'. He has been suggested for the post of foreign minister in the Kosovo Albanians' recently formed provisional government. His colleagues, publishing in exile from Macedonia, jested that as the only key figure to remain in the province throughout the bombing, he could not travel and so should serve as minister for internal affairs instead.
Yet as a highly exposed Pristina personality, there was much concern for his safety during the past few months. Early in the bombing, one frantic rumour even suggested he was dead. So the coming out party of Veton and many other Kosovo Albanians at the re-opening of a local bar in Pristina a few days ago was a raucous occasion. It was not only good, but also important, that he had come through. Passing out the cigars he had adopted during his period in hiding, he resumed his favoured pipe, and his customary formal but warm tone.
The next morning, we met again in the offices of Koha Ditore. There, on the first night of the bombing, the newspaper's night watchman had been killed, and it seemed Serbian units may have occupied the premises. The long row of computers, only a few months ago buzzing with young journalists hammering away at their stories, had all been smashed. The regular bombardment of MTV, kept on at ear-busting volume in the editors' room, was replaced by an unfamiliar quiet.
In the coffee room, a group of foreign journalists gathered, and a scheduled interview turned into a long and wide-ranging conversation about Veton's experience and the prospects for Kosovo - interrupted regularly by the enthusiastic greetings of young colleagues trickling back into the newspaper and preparing to start all over again.
Q: Where were you during the bombing?
VS: There were many conflicting stories about me. Some of them were spread by my friends, willingly or unwillingly, that I was in the hills with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), that I was outside Kosovo. There was even a rumour that I was on vacation in Spain. But I was always inside Pristina.
The first time I had to move because armed masked uniformed people came to ring the bell. But instead of coming to the house where I was staying, they went to our neighbours and started looting. They got stuck somehow, and instead of coming over to us, headed in another direction, and I could get away. At least it gave me a chance to change the air and an opportunity to walk, because I was always sitting. The second time I moved because the whole area where I was living was surrounded and people were being expelled from their homes.
The only time I encountered (armed forces) was the third time I moved, when I was descending one street. While I was walking, a special police jeep stopped about 20 metres away from me, and armed men got out and headed in my direction. I was scared as hell. But I was saved by a utility (company) car, which attracted their attention. It was not normal to have guys from the utility company around: they were looting. But since looting was a specialty of the police and the military, the (armed men) went after them, and this gave me time to get away.
Q: Why did you stay in Kosovo?
VS: It was a moral decision. As someone who had signed the Rambouillet accords, I felt I had a responsibility to stay. It wasn't fair to say, Well, I've signed it and I am going to stay out, and the people will have to suffer the consequences. I also stayed because of Koha Ditore. We have grown together as a kind of family, and I thought it was unfair to leave everyone. We knew that bombs would fall and that the Serbs would go wild. What we didn't know was the extent of it. But I thought it was my duty to be here.
Q: What were the worst moments?
VS: When I was staying with four families in one house and I understood that I was putting the lives of those people in danger. They were showing enormous strength and solidarity, and I thought what do my moral obligations have to do with a 13-year-old kid who could have been shot because of me? So I had to move. That was the lowest point: realising that I had become a nuisance to this society.
Q: Did you think the bombing would last so long?
VS: Frankly, no. I miscalculated Slobodan Milosevic and I overestimated NATO. I thought NATO would be much faster in its targeting, but the first week they looked like sisters of mercy. It drove me crazy when they made excuses about the clouds. It doesn't take much for a Serbian police unit to burn a village, but they were up there 15,000 feet away bombing television transmitters. It was very annoying.
Q: And when NATO came to Pristina?
VS: Oh, the saints were marching in.
Q: when we last spoke, just before the bombing, you said your nightmare would be if everyone walked away from the peace process. We would have a period of violence and then just return to where we were at Rambouillet. Has this occurred, or has their been a political gain for the Albanians?
VS: If Milosevic had accepted the Rambouillet accords, we would have had a much smoother transition. We would have had time to concentrate on building institutions instead of building houses. Now we have a devastated population whose immediate concern is to repair a looted house or, if they find a burnt house, to start from scratch. Or even bury family members.
The Albanians also have an unresolved leadership question. And the people in the international administration have to develop their job descriptions today. When you refer to "some kind of autonomy" for Kosovo, it means you haven't really thought about it. So the military has done its job, but on the political side, the civilians have not done theirs.
Q: The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is taking over municipal structures and establishing the provisional government of Hasim Thaci, but without any democratic legitimacy. Are you afraid that the KLA is taking over as an unchecked force?
VS: No force just taking over can have democratic legitimacy. What we have now is a vacuum. And it is being filled by anyone, especially those who have the dynamic to do so, such as the KLA. A lot will depend on how the international administration is set up. Unfortunately I wouldn't bet too much on it, because it will take quite some time to establish, following a pattern of inertia. As a result, the international administration will be confronted with two bad choices. Either it will have to recognise those new initiatives, new realities, and cooperate with them under certain conditions. Or it can refuse to recognise them, and send General (Michael) Jackson against them, which I don't think he will like very much.
Q: But either you engage the Albanian authorities or you risk disempowering them and not developing a new Albanian political culture.
VS: None of the alternatives are good. There will be only bad choices. The ideal solution would be a strong international administration that gradually devolves power to something that represents a working consensus among Albanians. But I don't think a strong international administration is coming, or at least it is still not here. What you have is an exploration of competencies. The international administration is setting out an 'Indian territory', and deciding where it will establish the flag.
My advice would have been, before this started, to go in strong and know what you are doing. Don't send in teams to investigate. A stronger Albanian voice in preparing the international presence would also have avoided many problems. But the easiest way to postpone a problem is to form a working group, which is what is happening know. Instead, the first day, it should have been: I am your new governor here, gentleman, and I am taking over this and that, and I want your cooperation.
Q: But Viera de Mellor, the UN chief in Kosovo, has made some statements like that.
VS: De Mellor is here as an interim of the interim. He is going back. The UN shouldn't have named an interim administrator. I know it wasn't easy to find one candidate everyone would support. But it's not a personality issue. It's that this is a transitory administration of a future administration, which is itself transitory.
Q: What about the Albanians? Can they handle the responsibility of power?
VS: That's the million-dollar question.
Q: They have formed a provisional administration. Is it legitimate?
VS: My standard of legitimacy is elections, which we cannot have, in the best case, before next spring. Short of that, everything must be done by agreement. At Rambouillet, it was agreed that the three factions - the KLA, Democratic Union Movement (LBD) led by Rexhep Qosaj and other smaller groups, and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) - would form a government by consensus. The first two factions have formed a government led by Hasim Thaci. But in order to be consensual, the third group has to agree. So (LDK leader) Ibrahim Rugova has a veto power over it, and he will not give that up easily.
Q: Can the international community help bring them together?
VS: For that, they will need an Albanian-Albanian translator. So far, I have only seen a working breakfast.
Q: Can the KLA transform itself into a proper political party?
VS: The KLA is not politically homogenous. Its members have different party affiliations. We will see people moving towards political centres, but these are weak and so far more symbolic than real.
Q: Is a new party needed?
VS: I would like to see a transition on the Spanish model, where many movements, even extreme ones, transformed themselves into the pillars of strong parties on the European model of left and right. But in Kosovo, this is unrealistic. For now people will be saying, 'Well, ten years ago I was hit on the head by a policeman and based on those merits I should be a candidate'. Or 'I have fought'. Or 'I have been in jail'. Or whatever. The element of persecution will be a strong identity. It will take time for political figures to realise that there is also a vote to be gained by telling people how the social security system will function.
Q: So for now there is in fact no administration in Kosovo?
VS: The only strong administrator we have at the moment is Jackson, because he knows exactly what he is doing.
Q: That leaves lots of problems, with no one to resolve daily social disputes?
VS: Absolutely. Take the lack of water we had for a week in Pristina. It wasn't only a question of who was going to fix it. The issue is, as a citizen with a problem, who do I call: Jackson? The utility company?
Q: Take employment. The Serbs took over jobs from the Albanians ten years ago. How are you going to reach a settlement on this now?
VS: It could have been worked out beforehand. Now it can only be handled gradually. Look at something simple, like the (local) cinema. Out of 12 employees, say six Albanians were kicked out. They hired four more Serbs and maybe one Turk. Now the manager refuses to show American movies because of NATO.
So theoretically, you say all those who were expelled can go back to their jobs. That's if all of them are here - which isn't the case. You have people dispersed all around the refugee camps and people who emigrated, too. Then, even if they come, someone has got to pay them next month. But from where? The UN administration? If de Mellor started asking for money now, he would be getting it by April next year.
These are the elements of decolonisation, the transfer from minority to majority rule. Had the transition begun earlier, which I was proposing years ago, a schedule for the future democracy - as in South Africa, some kind of Conference on Kosovo Democracy - Serbs and Albanians could have established the rules of transition together. But now it is happening in this chaotic way because there was a war.
Q: Has Kosovo won its independence?
VS: This is the end of the Ottoman Empire and the transition to a post-modernist state. So you can call Kosovo whatever you like. But people will begin to understand the fallacy of the past ten years, that there isn't a Yugoslavia. It doesn't exist. When (British Foreign Secretary) Robin Cook arrives here, he will land on territory formally part of a state his country has no diplomatic relations with. And no one will ask him for his passport or a visa.
We have been watching the disintegration of Tito's socialist Yugoslavia - a slow and painful process. Today what is known as Yugoslavia, a country unrecognised by the UN, still has Tito's flag, but it is run by Serbia and an indicted war criminal. Montenegro came out of this crisis with a stronger democracy. And Kosovo is an international protectorate. In China you had the formula (of) two systems in one country. I can see how Kosovo and Montenegro could become compatible. But for now you have one country with three totally different systems.
Q: What are your personal plans? Will you found a new party?
VS: The first thing I was thinking about today was how to get an expresso machine for Koha Ditore's café.
I do not think for the moment my attention should be directed towards organised political life. Nor should I use my energy in debating the general line of the Albanian parties in the past decade, namely that the long history of the Illyrians in the Balkans over the past two thousand years by definition gives them the right to self-determination. I will concentrate on re-establishing the newspaper in Kosovo. We need very strong democratic institutions. Koha Ditore is a strong institution that has survived this war. It needs to be independent, and to be a pillar in this society through which the citizens can begin to identify some kind of normalcy.
Q: Why are the Serbs leaving? Will any stay?
VS: The movement of the Serbian population was not initiated by the KLA. It would not be fair to say that the Albanians are driving them out. I don't feel good about it. But it simply shows the intensity of the pendulum swing. It's part of the gamble that Milosevic and the Serbian authority made. He gambled all or nothing, and he lost. And the people here, too, gambled all or nothing with Milosevic, and they lost. You cannot have fascism for 10 years without majority support. The Serbian people supported fascism. I do believe in collective responsibility. But I do not believe in collective punishment. I don't think that the Serbian people should be leaving because they supported fascism. Through the Hague Tribunal, we can identify individuals, maybe a large number, but certainly individuals who in one way or another have been hurting the Albanians.
Now that a critical mass of Serbs is leaving, this is making it impossible for other Serbs to remain. It is a self-perpetuating process, because no one wants to be the last one left. There is also the reality that they are, in any event, a minority of under 10 per cent of the population that, within a week, have seen an absolutely dramatic change in their situation. For the past 10 years, they were colonial administrators and suddenly they have lost those powers. They have seen the intensity of the destruction in the war, they know what has been done to the Albanians, and they fear that the pendulum will swing the other way.
If it is not possible to step them departing now, it is necessary, for the international administration and the Albanians, to show that there is an open door for their return, to invite them to share the risks of building a future democracy. One motivation will be that, by the time they get to Serbia, they will see that it is a very lousy place. In only a few months, this will be a place where Serbs from Serbia come to shop.
Q: Should there be a truth commission?
VS: Unfortunately, it is too late to really help Kosovo. But there still should be one, if for nothing else than for the future of Serbia itself. The Serbian people should know what was going on here. We have been going from war to war in which I have heard people in Belgrade say 'that the Serbian people didn't know what was going on'. In Croatia, in Bosnia, they didn't know what was happening. But this isn't true. The reality is that when you block your eyes and ears, you won't know. In the case of Kosovo, too, they may choose not to know. But now they have a president indicted for war crimes here, which again brings collective responsibility. He is the man the Serbian people either supported or did not do much to remove.
Q: You cite so many problems. Are you optimistic?
VS: These are the problems of a society in development, not one going downwards. They are the pains of a new Kosovo that is being built. The Kosovars have two strong motivations to make it work. First, it is the youngest society in Europe - 70 per cent of the population is under 30. Second, having gone through so much all these years, there is no way these people are going to let things go fundamentally wrong.
We also put a lot of trust in the seriousness shown by the international community in this crisis. They, especially the European Union, will want to build a stable democracy in this area. Kosovo is a good experiment, it can be a small showcase of how they can do it, and do it fast.
Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
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