Untold effects and
the local viability of peace-keeping


PressInfo # 162

 September 27, 2002


Vasiliki Neofotistos
TFF Peace Antenna and PhD candidate at Harvard University
Jan Oberg, TFF director


Peacekeeping operations, PKOs, have direct aims, mandates and consequences directed towards the de-escalation of conflict and the maintenance of peace. Such aims are usually analysed in research reports and discussed in the media. But there are also more or less intended, indirect or hidden objectives and consequences of PKOs which are seldom highlighted.

More specifically, peacekeepers are transferred from a number of UN member states to the troubled area. They bring along values, norms, habits and ways of doing and organising things. In the best of cases, their training before departure creates some awareness among personnel about this type of "luggage" and how it may differ from the local values, norms, and habits in the region of operations. But, invariably, they can have a tremendous impact on local society and culture.

The ways in which local people negotiate the social encounter with peacekeeping forces - a social process that brings to mind colonial and missionary encounters - are crucial for us to understand the viability of peace-keeping operations on the ground. It helps us also to understand the relations between peace-keepers and locals as well as the relations among different, newly-emergent fractions of the local population. Unfortunately, media tend to leave and stay away when the fighting dies down; that's, however, when they should stay engaged if they were interested in peace rather than war.

The situation in a place like today's Kosovo/a - a good three years after the NATO-UN peacekeepers arrived makes a good case for discussing such questions. Some, predominantly Albanians, see the bombings and the international government missions and policies as a liberation. Others, predominantly the Serb minority, see it as an occupation and as an endorsement of reverse ethnic cleansing. Although this mission was and remains highly controversial, we use Kosovo/a is here as an example. But in principle the mechanisms we deal with are at work in other conflict-areas too.

For, just like in any other social context where the presence of peacekeeping forces becomes central to the experience of local life, people in Kosovo/a welcomed the UN arrival both with great relief and even greater scepticism. We shall begin by turning our attention to some of the effects of PKOs on social life, while aiming to shed light on the long-term viability of peace-keeping, as it now stands, in Kosovo/a.


Urban landscape, consumption and lifestyle

Before the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, Kosovo's main town, Pristina, used to be a conglomeration of Communist-era concrete mass buildings interspersed with a few spaceship-like public buildings that all fused together to generate a dull concept of aesthetics. After the bombing, however, changes in the urban landscape are striking, concomitant with the presence of tens of thousands of peacekeepers of different ranks and tens of thousands of civilians from governmental as well as non-governmental organisations that have been operating in the province since 1999. The imposing building where the local Serbian authorities were once located now hosts the UN Headquarters to mark a paradigm shift in the exercise of local power. Perhaps the most noticeable change for the newcomer, however, is the exorbitant number of white UN and OSCE cars crammed together with red police ones - the so-called "Coca-Cola" cars - in the narrow streets of Pristina.

At the aftermath of the bombing, a local economy of the idealisation of UCK (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves) or the Liberation Army of Kosovo, KLA, proliferates. Street vendors, for example, selling an array of flags, pins and T-shirts with the UCK emblem printed on them are aligned one next to the other near the main square. Piles of Albanian books written by UCK commanders and published in Tirana, advocating for the Army's deeds and ideals, fill up numerous stalls. Kosovo-Albanian flags and emblems are on display together with those of the European Union, NATO and the United States.

The flow of money from abroad, in the form of salaries for the local personnel who has managed to join the work force of international organisations as drivers, clerks and translators cannot alleviate the severe economic crisis that has stricken Kosovo for a decade or more in times of peace as well as war. At the same time, the overwhelming international presence in the area has generated a deep social and economic rift between those locals who have the skills to find employment with international organisations and those who do not.

Nowhere does this gap become more apparent than in the clientele of the ever-expanding number of fancy cafés and restaurants that appear out of nowhere and in no time, with elegant interiors and excellent food. Customers are those locals who can afford the prices, together with the "international community's staff members" who are equally, if not more, important in boosting demand. It is not uncommon to see large queues outside restaurants during lunch and dinner time. There is nothing original in the food or the environment (except perhaps in the prices); it's all "European" and "American". (And) Besides, what else can you spend money on in this artificial town but food, beer, drinks and perhaps going on weekend trips to the mountains or sea-coast in Montenegro (not to mention prostitution)?

At the same time, a newly emergent class of local people consists of those who have earned a fortune on the war be it on drugs, weapons, smuggling, transport or plain trading in goods needed for the re-building and for the expanded consumption by the internationals. In addition, the Mafia still remains one of the key problems in today's Kosovo/a. It's a well-known fact that you can hardly buy anything, even a beer, there without supporting its operations. As we were told, the Mafia is so potent that its members, Serbs and Albanians alike, often extract money from local people by means of threatening. The sudden arrival of a big number of foreigners and the overwhelming international presence in Kosovo/a has upset prior social networks of trust and security in a closed society where everyone used to know the origin and the whereabouts of everyone else.

There are dozens of discotheques and cafés in Pristina. Among the ones that attract the biggest number of patrons are the restaurant, bars and outdoor facilities of the famous Grand Hotel where, during the earlier Balkan wars, Arkan and his Tigers used to have their backroom recruitment offices. Now some foreign investors have come around to renovate it. That's not too bad, of course. Visitors in the early 1990s may still remember the cold winter nights without heating, without electricity (and lift) stumbling up pitch dark stair and corridors, luggage in one hand and candle lights in the other. Soon it will resemble any other Western hotel around the world. There is a demand for that in today's Kosovo/a. As long, that is, as there are this many foreigners in this tiny province which has, still, very little productive or self-sustaining economic activity.


Politics and democracy

Few local politicians have had the slightest idea of what it means to lead a society; they all came from the rather narrow political tradition in which it was enough to call for "Independence" and denounce whatever was done by Serbs, even good-hearted ones. What did politics ever have to do with sewage systems, house-building, taxation, garbage handling, traffic, law and order? These were issues of no relevance to the citizens, or so they thought.

The only exception, to some extent, was the Democratic League of Kosova, LDK, which built alternative political, educational and health institutions, indeed the embryos of a genuine civil society. LDK's work was unwisely ignored, however, by the international community in two ways: Western governments chose to support the hard-line militants (designated terrorists by the U.S. State Department at the time). Those were people who did not know much else but how to handle a gun and certainly did not have a clue about democracy. Secondly, the international community came in 1999 and built everything from scratch, seemingly not even aware of the fact that there was a civil society in-the-making by means of non-violence and a commitment to build a new civil society. Such a society existed due to the moderate LDK led by Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, the democratically elected leader from the early 1990s and current president of Kosovo/a (much to the surprise of the international community that did its utmost to undermine him).

It was the only non-violent leadership and politics in the former Yugoslavia together with Kiro Gligorov's Macedonia, another peace-oriented society demolished by the international community. Thus democracy was imposed from the outside - which means it is not, and will not be, a democracy more than it will in say Muqdishu, Sarajevo or Kabul. It's an "as if"-democracy with no roots on the local ground with frustrated citizens feeling that they have little or no stake(s): neither in the peace plan on which it all operates nor in the particular development of their society that emerges out of the long-term implementation phase.

For, the remaining few Serbs are now the ones faced with the precarious situation of isolation and physical danger, to the extent that they need international escort to exit their buildings even to buy daily necessities, such as bread and milk or have their children reach school safely.

Most Kosovo-Albanians on the other hand see international presence as yet another impediment to personal freedom and Kosovo' s independence that has also enhanced social instability and uncertainty for the future.

And the rest of us must not forget that it is their society, not ours. They must live there with the consequences of their own actions as well as those of the international community. The international community can always leave. It simply doesn't feel right.


Militarism and technological fixes

What are we teaching children and youth in these conflict zones with our bombs and about 40,000 soldiers? Surely that bombs, boots, barracks and bayonets is what really matters and shapes the future. Patient negotiations, active listening to the locals and the locals listening to each other is out, and so is political sophistication. Peace must be brought about by violent, not peaceful -- as stated in the UN Charter-- means.

In are armed people in battle and camouflage dress, streets lined with armoured personnel carriers, Humwees, barracks and the largest US base, Bondsteel, built outside the US since the Vietnam war. We tell them that they, not civilians, get thing done! They created peace while diplomats (allegedly) failed. The tacit message sent by the international organisations is that the fist is better than the spoken word. That there are technological fixes to social and political problems, to traumas, economic crises and all other root causes of war and hatred. To be big and strong, militant and macho is better than what they had - and could have had. In short, that leadership is out and talking tough with high-tech is in.

The young boys therefore who were told by their fathers and grandfathers many years ago that independence would be won with war see that theory confirmed. They become prepared to reply to a potential call to arms in the future - will join a future Kosovo army, if there is one - and later run the place according to the norms of the barrack rather than those of the parliament.

It is no wonder that it takes time to develop genuine democracy beyond merely free (and sometimes fraud) elections in places like Kosovo. The international community is present through undemocratic procedures in the first place; it entered the conflict zone through trading arms to one of the parties while shamelessly bombing the other, and then it tries to teach and impose democracy top-down. It is not unreasonable to see the international community as occupiers of a province that, beyond dispute, is part of Yugoslavia at least until a negotiated solution stating otherwise is found. In short, there is no relation between means and ends, between what we say and what we do. And this problem has become much worse with the change from unarmed peace-keeping to heavily armed peace-enforcement.


Local obedience and lessons learned


Implicitly we tell the local parties that they are subordinate and must obey foreign masters. We tell them that they were irresponsible, did not know better than to fight each other and that, the "good West" came riding in with the sole, noble purpose of creating peace and being impartial. The "good West" teaches them that they should be grateful for the fact that we installed a new regime, introduced democracy, law and order and that the World Bank and the Fund came in with capital. And if they behave, the doors to paradise will open: NATO and EU membership, integration in the "Euro-Atlantic" community is the reward out there somewhere. If they don't, the doors to paradise will be slammed and the flow of aid discontinued. But they are told by hand-wringing Western diplomats that they can pursue that option too, of course - and pay another kind of price: oblivion, decrepit living standards or new war.

Whether the "good West" or the local communities will have paid the highest price in, say, twenty years is of no importance now. Because, the former appears to be interested in "quick fixes" while the latter actually are offered no choice! That's where Macedonia is today: no choice. It has to implement the "peace" plan the EU, the US and NATO imposed on it (de facto) last year. Of course one might argue that had the West not done so, Macedonia would have rolled down the abyss of civil war. Such an argument, however, foreshadows the instrumental role that the West itself played in unravelling the warfare, be it with its lack of co-ordinated action that ended up doing more harm than good, its disregard for local needs and its pumping in weapons, military experts and intelligence people. In any case, Western "intervention" in the Balkans ends up leaving a large part of the population with humiliation and an even larger one with the belief in violence as the only means to accomplish ends.


Social norms and aspirations - a young woman speaks her mind

Over the years, the authors have talked with many locals both in Kosovo and Macedonia. What follows are excerpts from a conversation we had about a year ago with Lindita, an Albanian woman in her mid-twenties who worked as an interpreter for one of the international governmental organisations in Pristina. Lindita's comments echo similar comments we often heard voiced in Kosovo. Here are some highlights of what she had to say.


There is less equality now:

- "So many have gotten rich so fast and then you have all those who do not have anything, still. I don't know how they got so rich. But it was more equal here before and there is much less solidarity among Albanians now. Values such as solidarity and equality are rapidly declining; in the countryside there are fewer changes, but I can hardly recognise Pristina; it's about twice as big as it was a couple of years ago. So many changes and too quickly. We need changes, but this is too fast. It's like a Coke bottle exploding!"


Increasing generation gap and changed power relations in the family:

- "My parents think of what will happen with people here, with our values. People speak English, girls dress up in mini skirts and expose their bare bellies and I come home and speak even some English. My father gets irritated by this and tells me to use our Albanian language. Perhaps these are good changes. Younger people earn money and become more independent, and they obey the old generation less than before. A young woman who brings home a lot of money every month to the household, like I do, can say to her father that if you don't like me and the way I live, I can leave."


European values, positive and negative responses:

- "As for Europe, we wanted to get in there but it is now here! The young generation is mostly fascinated by the contacts with the internationals and the idea of a future in Europe. But the older generation doesn't like it at all."


Cultural norms and concepts erode:

- "We Albanians have the concept of besa, honour. But this has become more difficult now, although some still apply it. It's an old, very special concept, or custom, in our culture but we hardly talk about it anymore. Up to the bombing it was more important. We ordinary people may not lose it completely but I fear we may in the future. And at the higher political level, we can forget about besa. In politics, it seems to me, it is money that does the trick, not honour."


Feeling less secure than before:

- "I must admit that I feel much less secure than before. I do not go out that much. There are so many new faces whereas I knew everybody before. Pristina is too small to host so many different backgrounds. You see, the borders are open, everything goes through, there is trafficking of women, drugs and all that. And I don't mean only the internationals. All kinds of Albanians have come in because there is business here."


Less time for each other, more entertainment:

- "Like everybody else I spend a lot of my spare time with friends and family drinking tea and chatting, of course. That's tradition. But families meet less often now, I think. The reason is that everybody is now busier with their own affairs: shopping - even abroad and on a Visa card! &endash; there are so many new rules and things happening and there are new employment opportunities. Life is more hectic. It seems like everybody has less time for each other nowadays. We must all cope with change, very rapid and too much change. But we still watch TV a lot, for sure, and talk about our bosses (Lindita laughs)."


Individualism versus collectivism - and consumerism:

- "I need our traditions, our wedding ceremonies and family gatherings. The internationals seem to be so independent, and live here one by one, without family. We are not independent like them, we think more like "us" while they think of "I". I don't want to lose this feeling of "us" for anything in the world. Many can now go shopping even abroad, but have you seen all the expensive fashion shops here in Pristina, they are scary! Look, I am employed by a major international organisation and get about 600 Euros, but even I can't spend that much money on clothes and things (Lindita meantime chain-smokes while her fancy sun-glasses are carefully placed next to her pack of Davidoff cigarettes on the table). If they leave, I'll get 1/4 of that in the best of cases, I mean if I would get a job at all. This new consumerism is not healthy."


Education is out of the question, at least for now:

- "When I met my friends before we typically asked: what do you study? Nobody asks that anymore, instead we ask: which organisation do you work for and how much do you earn? Of course I learn a lot I would otherwise not have learnt, but the price I am paying is real education. And when one day it's all over, what will we have left, except material things?


Changing social structures, go between, transition:

- "I have changed my status completely because I am no longer seen as an equal by my friends who do not have a job with one of the many international organisations. They see me as someone who is slightly more high-class, detached and lucky; they kind of see people like me as almost internationals! On the other hand, the internationals see me as a local, as someone who is subordinate and must work and do exactly as they tell me to or tacitly expect. Look, we do not even get a business card like those higher up in the organisation. We are just called "general service staff" while the internationals are called the "professionals". I am only an interpreter, but at the same time they could not talk with each other and the locals without people like me."



- "I am not saying that all this is bad. When we were in former Yugoslavia, we Albanians could get killed any day and we did not have a chance to get any education. Now at least there is hope for something better."

Lindita finally told us that she would always feel that her roots were in Kosovo and that that was her country, no matter what. She would not leave it for any other reason except if her partner was a foreigner. About half a year after our conversation took place, she had already moved to an EU country.

What we learn from her is how deep and broad, how conflictual and problematic it is to be the local embodied objective of huge international operations that try to create and maintain peace or rather, as in the case of Kosovo/a at least, run a protectorate. Whether intended or not, PKOs leave their mark, unavoidably. Local people hang in the balance in-between as remnants of a past that proved to be impossible and potential agents of a future not quite yet plotted. In addition, many carry the sorrow, the pain and, perhaps, the wish for revenge that such in-between states can generate among fractions of the local population.

Moreover, this young Albanian woman points to a series of essential aspects of civil society development in post-war regions. She belongs to the side that is most happy that the international organisations came to Kosovo/a, she is by no means negative to the fact that NATO, the UN, OSCE and hundreds of NGOs are present in her community. But her words, we understand, reveal a considerable feeling of insecurity and powerlessness vis-à-vis the unspoken consequences of these missions and their long-term social, cultural and economic impact.


What can happen if the peace-keepers stay?

Even though things have calmed down in the province, one cannot afford to overlook the increasing number of incidents directed against members of the international community. Such incidents are indicative of the growing discontent with the international presence, as it now stands, and point to ways that locals envision their future - a future that surely does not involve internationals that dominate or run affairs according to foreign interests.

The viability of the top-down imposed Western system of getting things done in Kosovo/a seems to be contingent on the locals' long-term co-optation by the idea that Serbs and Albanians are indeed better off with foreigners taking matters in their hands. Alternatively, perhaps it would be no exaggeration to note that yet another conflict is in the making in Kosovo/a, this time between internationals and locals, or even between locals who espouse Western ideals for self-serving purposes and those who do not.


What can happen when the peacekeepers leave?

Imagine that many or all of these tens of thousands foreigners suddenly left Kosovo/a (some actually might if or when Iraq is invaded). The impact they have on the local market, their profile as comparatively rich consumers is considerable in this under-developed province. Add to that all the technical and other services the PKOs need as well as the construction and infrastructure development, which are parts of peace-building processes.

Then imagine that one day it is all over. Is there any self-reliant capacity in this project, in the place called Kosovo/a? How many thousands would lose the jobs they took, knowing well that it meant that they abandoned further education for years? What about those who, due to the salaries they got, acquired a higher status but will fall down the social and economic ladder in unemployment if the missions leave? What about those who have bought property or made investment because they suddenly had a high income - and then lose it?

We know that there is no ideal political exit strategy from many of these places: Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan. But, even worse perhaps, there is no economic and cultural exit strategy at all. Stay and you will, sooner or later not only affect but also manage (or uproot) the local economy and culture; leave and whatever it is that was dependent on international presence to run smoothly is bound to fall apart.

This is a central dilemma in all PKOs. Creative and fair ways out cannot be expected unless we devote MUCH more attention to it. And debate it!


Raising questions

Some may see the cultural and economic impact of PKOs as a natural part of the current trend of "globalisation" and argue that change would anyhow have come to these troubled lands and that it is at least better now than had the wars been allowed to continue. But that is no satisfying answer. Instead, we need an open discussion about a series of question, among them:

- Is this a new kind of colonialism and cultural management through which local societies are opened up and "programmed" for Westernisation and for serving our interests rather than their own indigenous development goals and needs?

- Can genuine peace be expected when we employ culturally blind and violent means?

- Can democracy be promoted in the way the West professes to do in, say, Kosovo/a?

- How can respect for human rights be promoted when the international missions unavoidably ignore the rights of people to participation and equality?

- Does the way that PKOs are internally organised generate hierarchical divisions between locals and internationals that are hard to bridge?

- Can we imagine peacekeeping with a better balance between the locals and the internationals, between means and ends and between words and ideals on the one hand and actual operations on the other?

- Can more be done to promote gender balance and involve women and youth while at the same time be respectful of a local culture where gender equality is not on the agenda?

- Could the locals come to us whenever they deem our help necessary instead of our inviting ourselves over?

- Should some kind of social and economic and cultural impact statements be made for each PKO so that many more people would be alerted to the untold consequences of these missions?

- Are we willing to share responsibilities with the local civil societies and stay on for the time it takes to make real democratic changes and the post-war developments?

- Could there be much more mutual learning instead of one-way instruction?

- Should there be advance planning for gradual disengagement from local affairs and the transfer of responsibility to locals?

- Can we make those changes sustainable and self-reliant, so we can leave with a good feeling and not with a feeling of having brought more chaos down on war-stricken people and their societies, tail between our legs?


© TFF 2002



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