Where Schusses Overcome Kosovo’s Ethnic Schisms (Comment on NY Times Article 11/19/07)

The article published today in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/19/world/europe/19kosovo.html?pagewanted=print) about Kosovo had some interesting — as well as frightening — implications.  Brezovica, located in the Serbian enclave of Strpce, is a beautiful and rugged ski slope.  If you haven’t been there before, you should make a visit there in your lifetime.  Powder snow up to your knees on an open mountainface with ultra-picturesque views, not to mention Sharr mountain dogs (imagine St. Bernards). 

It is also a place where Serbians and Albanians can ski together side-by-side.  But does time heal all wounds?  Can the quest for making money make people forget about ethnic divisions?  Or is the hatred between some Serbians and Albanians so strong that no amount of time or money will fix the fragile relationship?

The New York Time article published today touches the surface of some of these questions.  Brezovica is Serb-owned and, after the 1999 conflict, Kosovar Albanians venture into the Serb enclave and visit the slopes to ski.  But, as December 10 approaches (the date the troika’s status talks are to end), as well as Kosovo’s inevitable declaration of independence shortly thereafter, many ask whether the fragile peace enforced by NATO and KFOR will endure.

Check the article out at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/19/world/europe/19kosovo.html?pagewanted=print

Where Schusses Overcome Kosovo’s Ethnic Schisms

BREZOVICA, Kosovo — War is not forgotten here, but there is at least one place — at this ski resort, 5,600 feet high on a mountain blanketed with snow during winter — where Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs try, however uneasily, to get along.

“I don’t care who owns Kosovo as long as I can make a living,” Ivan Milosavljevic, the Serbian owner of a ski lodge here, said recently as he downed a shot of slivovitz and watched Serbian music videos with two friends from the province’s Albanian ethnic majority. “I hardly ever go down from here because this peak is civilization. Down below is a political jungle.”

Lutfi Alozi, an Albanian friend who comes to ski with his family, nodded in agreement. “We love to ski more than we love to hate,” he said, in fluent Serbian. “We just want to have a good time,” he added, before kissing Mr. Milosavljevic on the cheek and saying goodbye.

The sight of Serbs and Albanians drunkenly laughing together is a fragile sign of optimism in this predominantly Serb-inhabited skiing village, harking back to its heyday when its rugged natural beauty, powdery snow and Olympic-level ski runs attracted the likes of the former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.

Today, NATO peacekeepers in camouflage patrol the slopes. Strpce, a Serbian enclave that encompasses Brezovica, is about 40 miles from Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

It has been under United Nations administration since the ouster of the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who brought international condemnation for his attack on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.

Eight years later, as Kosovo threatens to declare independence from Serbia in December, the effects of the war are plain. United Nations police officers stand guard at a giant monument to the Kosovo Liberation Army that flanks the entry to Brezovica. Serbs displaced during the war now hang laundry from the balconies of abandoned Albanian weekend retreats.

“Sometimes I stand here and can’t believe this is Europe,” said a United Nations officer, throwing up his hands in exasperation.

Many Serbs struggle to stay in business until the ski season brings in roughly 100,000 middle-class Kosovar Albanians, who patronize Serbian-run restaurants, hotels and shops. Then both sides are forced to put aside differences, if only temporarily.

Only in the past two years have Albanian skiers begun to return. Orlo Jovanovic, 58, the Serbian leader of Brezovica’s local business association and owner of Rok, a restaurant here, said that the local economy was dependent on middle-class Albanians and that he was determined to draw them back.

It is not easy. Many Serbian-owned restaurants and hotels sit empty during ski season because Albanian tourists are under pressure to boycott Serbian establishments, he said.

When his Albanian friends do come to his restaurant, he said, they try to hide their identity. He expresses nostalgia for the days of the former Yugoslavia when he went to the movies with Albanian friends and the restaurant was so full he had to turn people away.

Still, in an effort to draw more Albanian customers, Mr. Jovanovic has taken pork off Rok’s menu and is serving veal instead to respect Muslim dietary laws.

Ignoring the concerns of friends about his safety, he recently traveled to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, to try to persuade Albanian-owned travel agents to bring Albanian tour groups to town.

“We used to live very well with Albanians,” he said, surveying Rok’s empty tables. “Now, my Albanian friends say that they can’t come to a Serbian place even to drink a glass of water.”

But several Albanians here say that skiing is more important to them than any residual ethnic tensions.

Shkelzen Domi, an Albanian and self-described ski fanatic who has been visiting Brezovica for 30 years, said his friends told him he was crazy after he recently decided to rebuild his weekend home here.

It was burned down by Serbian officers in 1998. But Mr. Domi, who works for an international organization in Pristina, said he wanted to put the past behind him.

He said the town’s frequent power failures, which leave skiers stranded on chairlifts, were more of a concern than hostile Serbs. He recently found himself stuck for an hour on a chairlift with a Serb; rather than talking about the future of Kosovo, he said, the two discussed which was the most challenging run. Later, they skied down the mountain together.

He said commercial transactions between Serbs and Albanians could help overcome past resentments. When his 13-year-old son was recently apprehensive about buying a Coca-Cola from a 10-year-old Serb, Mr. Domi said he taught his son to say “please” and “thank you” in Serbian.

“Every ski season, everyone says there will be a problem, a provocation, a war,” he said. “But people are fed up with war. They just want to live in peace, and to ski.”

Yet, as the new ski season approaches, Kosovo’s plan to declare independence is on everybody’s mind. Local Serbs are understandably worried, fearing they would be left in a hostile country dominated in all but four districts by ethnic Albanians. Local business people also fear that the authorities of an independent Kosovo would act to take over the resort, costing some of Brezovica’s 15,000 Serbs their jobs.

[The Democratic Party, led by Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla who claims credit for breaking Serbia’s hold on the province in 1999, won the most seats in Kosovo’s parliamentary election on Saturday, Reuters reported. The party is now set to lead Kosovo into a showdown with Serbia on the ethnic Albanian majority’s demand for independence. Mr. Thaci, the clear favorite to become Kosovo’s prime minister, said the Parliament would declare independence “immediately after Dec. 10.”]For their part, Albanians worry that Strpce could break away and join with Belgrade. Their favorite ski resort would be lost forever.

Jovica Budovic, director of Hotel Narcis, one of the grandest hotels in Brezovica, lamented that it limped along with only 5 percent occupancy. He said the creaking infrastructure at the resort, which can accommodate 5,000 skiers an hour on 10 ski lifts, was in dire need of investment. But few Serbs are willing to invest in a resort that could fall into Albanian hands.

“This used to be a four-star hotel, but now because of the politics here, we are empty and everything is frozen,” Mr. Budovic said. “Making money is more important than divisions. It is the politicians who are making the problems.”

Such is the mistrust that Albanian welfare officials refused to work in the same building with Serbian counterparts. Every time an Albanian welfare officer needs the stamp of a Serbian official, a messenger comes from the Albanian office about three miles away.

Radica Grbic, the Serbian chief executive of the municipality, punctured the idea that Serbs and Albanians could be happy together. She complained that those Albanians who did come to ski littered the mountain and did not spend enough at Serbian establishments.

Local Serbs, she said in a familiar complaint, live in fear of a recurrence of riots that broke out in March 2004, when Albanian mobs attacked Serbs in their enclaves, killing 19 people and wounding hundreds of others.

She herself is ready to move to Belgrade if the situation does not improve and trust is not restored.

“The situation is O.K. now because of the tolerance of Serbs toward Albanians,” Ms. Grbic said. “But it’s an illusion that things function well here. I will work with my Albanian colleagues, but our friendship ends there.”



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