When the Miss Albania competition Saturday night came down to the last two contestants, it was impossible not to feel a little sorry for Sonila Merkuri. The 18-year-old dark-haired beauty from the city of Saranda in southern Albania trembled with coy anticipation for what her eyes demanded was her due: the silver tiara.
But poor Merkuri never had a chance.
To her right, also awaiting the final announcement, was a winsome blonde. And not just a blonde but a Kosovo refugee: Venera Mustafa, the embodiment of the vagaries of war.
Everybody figured the blonde, like NATO, couldn't lose.
"To crown Venera," said Ardit Gjebrea, the evening's host, in an interview before the show, "is to crown Kosovo."
Six days into NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia, Serbian special police forces moved through Mustafa's neighborhood in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. As some of their neighbors were rousted, Mustafa along with her father, a lawyer; her mother, a painter and writer; and her younger sister fled the city in the family car, joining a long convoy headed to Macedonia.
"It was very scary," said Mustafa, 19, who was in her last year of high school. "The police were in our neighbors' apartments. On the way out, there were police everywhere, harassing us. They were shouting at us: 'Why do you leave this country? If you love this country why do you leave?' "
Police checked the refugees' car, eyeing the girls. "Luckily, nothing happened," said Mustafa.
After spending a day in Macedonia, she and her family moved immediately to Albania, where they had relatives willing to shelter them.
A few weeks ago, Gjebrea, who was also producer of the Miss Albania show, began to ask local journalists if there were any potential beauty queens among the 430,000 refugees in the country. He quickly heard about Mustafa, who had been named Miss Pristina 1997.
"She was very reluctant," Gjebrea recalled. "She was under such stress and she said, 'How can I do this now?' I just said, 'You're not representing your own beauty. You will show how beautiful Kosovo is.' "
"The fact that there are 400,000 Kosovars in Albania and no one was taking part made me decide," Mustafa explained in an interview.
The Miss Albania show ran over two nights. Friday night--in a theater more than half empty--was an exercise in flesh-wobbling humiliation. On a stage with more tinsel than taste, the 24 contestants emerged in short pink and blue polyester dresses whose sole purpose seemed to be to showcase their buttocks or their flower-patterned cotton underwear (depending on how daring the contestant).
Each of the young women had to sing a song, and some would have been tossed out of a shower for poor delivery. Individually, they had to dance with some local professional male dancers whose bare-chested swagger simply highlighted the wooden steps of the women. And each beauty queen had to recite a poem, a dramatic monologue or an advertisement for one of the show's sponsors, including local pizza parlors.
The political overtones were soon apparent, however. When Mustafa said she was from Pristina, the crowd of several hundred roared its approval. And she delivered a poem about the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.
"She is Albanian, too," said Gjebrea with pride.
If this wasn't yet Greater Albania--the nightmare of Washington policymakers--it was a start.
Elida Malaj, Miss Tropoja from northern Albania, where the Kosovo Liberation Army has base camps to launch military operations against Serbian forces in the province, drove the point home when she sang passionately, "This is Kosovo. This is Albania. See how big Albania is."
The second night was bit classier, with an opera star, Inva Mula, as the centerpiece of the evening's entertainment. The contestants alternated among lime-green swimsuits, platinum-colored swimsuits and evening gowns. Their walks were more poised, their smiles more serene and their flesh less, well, goose-pimpled.
Mustafa wore a gold-sequined gown, and at times she carried herself with a solemn grace, winning the crowd's affection. Her ambition, she said, was "above all to return to a free Kosovo."
As the 24 contestants were cut to 12 to five to two, the losers departing with snarls and tears, it became quickly apparent that Mustafa would win.
"Political correctness," grumbled one woman in the front row.
But history could not be stopped.
"It was a spectacular ending to a great evening," said Tracy Kemble, a former Mrs. Globe from Newport Beach, Calif., who was one of the judges and voted for Mustafa. "I think God had a hand in it."
After she was crowned Miss Albania--the next step is Miss Europe--Mustafa called her victory "marvelous" and then added the words that haunt the West: "It shows that Tirana and Pristina are one."
CAPTION: Pristina beauty: Venera Mustafa is the new Miss Albania.
CAPTION: Staying a step ahead: Venera Mustafa, with a professional dance partner, performs during the first round of the Miss Albania pageant.