NY Times
Voice of Hope in Kosovo tells the US of goals

By JANE PERLEZ

May 7, 2000


WASHINGTON, May 6 -- For all the problems of Kosovo today, Veton Surroi, the publisher of the province's largest newspaper, reminds himself that things could be much worse.

"We could have well ended up like the Kurds and made good posters for Amnesty International," he said. "Or Kosovars could have ended up somewhere else, singing their own songs, getting drunk in cafes and remembering 1999 as a lousy year."

Instead, Mr. Surroi, who is viewed by many diplomats as a voice of reason in a traumatized corner of Europe, is trying to shape what he hopes will one day be a civil society.

Many officials in the international organizations that now run Kosovo -- which has few courts and a primitive economy -- wonder whether Mr. Surroi's goal can be achieved. Mr. Surroi, in an interview during a visit to Washington, insisted that it can, and that Kosovo must start now to shed its dependence on the United Nations, which runs the province's administration.

Mr. Surroi, who spent the duration of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last year in hiding from the Serbs in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, is critical of the United Nations management of the province but says it is not going to get any better.

For example, the long promised United Nations police force of 6,500 is still only 2,500 strong -- in part, Mr. Surroi said, because some of the recruits had to be sent home because they failed shooting tests, did not know how to drive, or, in the case of several Americans, were so overweight that they could not walk more than 100 yards. Mr. Surroi dismisses as bureaucratic folly the import of high-tech German garbage trucks to pick up trash when it takes weeks to find fuel for them.

"We've reached the peak of United Nations might, Kouchner has spent all his magic," Mr. Surroi said of Bernard Kouchner, the chief representative of the United Nations in Kosovo. "There's not much more the United Nations can do, now is the time for transition."

So Mr. Surroi, who was in Washington to collect an award from the National Endowment for Democracy, did the rounds of Clinton administration officials and Washington reseach groups with a fairly simple message: Kosovo needs a constitution of its own to provide a legal framework to build democratic institutions in a society that has never known them. At the State Department, specialists in constitutions are beginning to write one, although the thorniest question of all -- whether Kosovo, which remains formally a province of Serbia, should or can move to independence -- is still open.

Even as Kosovo continues to count on outside forces for much of its existence -- on NATO for its security, on German banks for its currency, on the United Nations for its international relations -- its inhabitants, overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, need to assume responsibility internally, Mr. Surroi said. A constitution is needed to help define what Mr. Surroi calls "self-rule" but not necessarily sovereignty.

For many Kosovo Albanians, the war last year was the culmination of many years of debate about how to separate from Serbia, from its dominant leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and from the federation of Yugoslavia, which includes Serbia and Montenegro, of which Mr. Milosevic is president.

Mr. Surroi argues that Kosovo can have its own constitution and define its borders as within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. "This is a kind of virtual reality, because I can't find anyone who considers the Federal Republic as a functioning state," he said, alluding to the fact that Montenegro has largely broken with Serbia politically, although the two remain together in the federation.

Mr. Surroi suggested that it is too soon to push for an independent state -- a goal of almost all Kosovar Albanians not shared by all Western nations and opposed by Russia.

Soon after the NATO bombing, when returning Albanians killed Kosovo Serbs and burned their homes, Mr. Surroi spoke out against the killings, appealing to his fellow Albanians not to force the remaining Serbs to leave. He was publicly denounced for his stand.

During several public talks this week, Mr. Surroi said that Kosovo still had far to go in moving toward tolerance. He argued that this was another reason for a constitution -- to establish individual rights. "You can't build tolerance on goodwill," he said.

For Kosovo to stand on its own feet -- and remove itself from its dependence on the overwhelming number of aid organizations that are tripping over themselves as they try to help schools and medical centers -- the economy needs to be legally defined.

Like Serbia, Kosovo was run as a socialist area. Now, there is a mixture of the old socialism, wild capitalism and strong-arm tactics by Kosovo Liberation Army fighters who believe that having been in the army gives them the right to expropriate property. "The result is not very encouraging, we have to settle the property issue," Mr. Surroi said.

Mr. Surroi is the first to recognize that criminality abounds in Kosovo although he rejects the argument that criminal bosses have taken control. The Kosovo Protection Corps, which is composed of former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla fighters that battled Serb control of Kosovo until NATO won the war, is not a band of "angels," he said. But he disputes the notion that Kosovo has become an enclave for heavy drug trafficking. "Kosovars are involved in drug trafficking but not in Kosovo itself," he said. "Kosovo is not a good route."

There is hope in one small fact, he added. "Things are lousy in Kosovo, I know 100 places where I'd have a much better life. But this is a society that has been without courts, police, laws for 10 months, yet people still stop at the red light."



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