Shacked Up With the U.N., Kosovo Is Ready to Bolt

By Maciej Zaremba
Sunday, November 18, 2007

PRISTINA, Kosovo My cabby curses at the white Nissan Patrol blocking a teeming intersection in Pristina. The SUV's driver, a Pakistani U.N. worker, desperately jerks the gearshift while angry hooting builds from the cars behind him. Something inside my cabby snaps, and he roars with laughter: "First the Turks. Then the Serbs. And now? We are invaded by Pakistan!"

That's right, he called the U.N. worker an invader. But you can hardly blame him. The man driving the Nissan Patrol is part of the most extensive U.N. operation in history, one that wore out its welcome long ago.

And now Kosovo is on the brink of independence. In Saturday's parliamentary elections, the parties had one thing in common: They want to turn Kosovo, still technically a province of Serbia, into a country.

The U.N. mission in Kosovo began in 1999, after NATO swept in with a 78-day bombing campaign that halted Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's bloody expulsion of ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population. Eight years later, Kosovo remains a U.N. protectorate, but internationals do more than enforce the peace. They train the police force, write school curricula and collect taxes. They even design traffic patterns for one-way city streets. Kosovo is the world's first U.N. state, created in the wake of a military campaign that saved tens of thousands of lives, where corrupt reconstruction efforts have turned the survivors' gratitude into resentment.

To understand this resentment, consider the case of a 70-year-old Kosovar widow who awoke one morning in December 2000 to find her telephone disconnected because of an unpaid bill. The bill wasn't hers, she protested -- it belonged to the international manager of Kosovo's power company named Joe Trutschler who rented her home in Pristina. When the telephone company contacted him about the bill, he denied responsibility for the calls, even though they were made to his home phone number in Germany.

The widow didn't give up. She didn't have much choice: The bill was for the equivalent of $5,100, a year and a half's salary in Kosovo. But when she appealed to U.N. officials, they claimed no responsibility for an employee's private activities, she said. She filed a complaint at the local court in Pristina, only to learn that, as a U.N. employee, Trutschler enjoyed immunity in Kosovo.

Trutschler, who got his job with a bogus r¿sum¿ that was never checked by U.N. officials, didn't just bilk his landlady. In 2003, he was convicted in Germany of embezzling the equivalent of $4.3 million from the Kosovo power company, and he was recently named in newspaper reports as one of 11 suspects being investigated for bilking $10 million from the water company. Meanwhile, the widow's phone is still dead.

Only 30 percent of Kosovars have faith in the United Nations, according to a U.N. bulletin in fall 2006 -- half the number that believed in the international administration four years ago. Fifty percent of the population is prepared to participate in organized protests against the world community, U.N. reports say. It's easy to see why. Kosovars have watched fraudsters use U.N. immunity to escape justice and seen foreign companies pocket millions of dollars in aid without delivering meaningful results.

Take France. During the summer of 1999, when it became clear that Frenchman Bernard Kouchner would head the fledgling U.N. mission in Kosovo, the French government established the Mission interminist¿rielle pour l'Europe du Sud-Est (MIESE). Its mission, according to a French government report: to avoid a scenario like the one that unfolded in Bosnia, where France contributed 17 percent of the total international aid but received only 5 percent of the reconstruction contracts. So representatives from French companies donned military uniforms and followed French troops into the province. Meanwhile, MIESE used its contacts in the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank to ensure that the mission favored French businesses. Pretty soon, France was in 13th place as a donor country but had won more than 30 percent of U.N. contracts in Kosovo, U.N. officials said.

Meanwhile, half of Kosovo's population is out of work. At the inaptly named Grand Hotel in Pristina, 21 waiters sit like melancholy jackdaws on windowsills around the bar. The only customer in the room waits to be noticed; his business hardly makes a difference. The same goes for motorists who stop at any of the 660 gas stations in Kosovo. There is a station every 3.7 miles -- too many for proprietors to support with the sale of gasoline alone. Behind closed doors, they launder money from the smuggling of narcotics, arms and prostitutes.

Kosovo's gross domestic product is scandalously low. Kosovars use soap from Bulgaria and wear T-shirts from Taiwan. Their flour comes from the Czech Republic and their drinking water from Hungary. As long as Kosovo remains a U.N. protectorate, a non-country, outside business investments will never come.

But what investments do you need to grow cucumber? While their own fields lie fallow, Kosovars eat tomatoes from Turkey and lettuce from Italy. It pays better to sell chewing gum to internationals than to toil in the fields. And eight years after the war, the local courts appointed and supervised by the United Nations still have not sorted out who owns the fields.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company