Letter from Thessaloniki

«When shall we go? This weekend or the next? I was told it would happen today!» I was calling Pantelis Savvidis, a roving correspondent for state broadcaster ET3. We used to travel together in the Balkan-scare days in the early 90s. «Don’t be in a rush. It will be on the 17th,» he declared knowingly. I made another call: «Christo, I have a copy of Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung confirming that Kosovo will proclaim independence on February 17. And it’s a serious newspaper you know. The WAZ says that the final scenario of recognition should be agreed upon during the Munich Conference on Security Policy. It just concluded its deliberations. It also says that the majority of EU countries would recognize the new country on March 10. Surely, Greece will not be among them. It says that the period until March 10 is needed to conclude work on the new constitution and to prepare laws. Can we use your newspaper’s car to drive there?» Christos Tellidis, the director in northern Greece for the daily Ethnos, was reassuring: «Don’t listen to them. It’s not so imminent. Better we drive up there next week.» Recently Agron Bajrami, the editor-in-chief of the leading daily Koha Ditore in Pristina, has been receiving numerous e-mail notes and calls. «Hello, Mr Bajrami, some journalists from Japan want to know when the declaration day of independence is. They will not publish the news, I assure you. They want to find that out in order to arrange their flight. It is problematic because, you know, Japan is very far. What? If you knew it, you would have published it? You mean there is no date yet?» Or: «Can I have the editor-in-chief, please? Hello Agron, I am from Croatian radio. Do you recall, I called you last week regarding the date. Is it worth coming this week? Will there be anything? You don’t know that yet? Is it OK if I call you tomorrow, just in case? Maybe there will be something?»  «Hello Agron, it’s me, Michael. I’m in Belgrade. Does it make any sense for me to come to Pristina. When might I expect something? I did not find out anything from the Europeans and Americans. They won’t talk! Have you heard anything from yours? You’re still waiting?» Or even: «Hello cousin, when are you declaring it? Tell me if you know. What? Hasn’t Hashim told you? What about him? Don’t tell me he doesn’t know either.» The Serbian province of Kosovo is surely heading toward a declaration of independence. However, it is true is that its life as a sovereign nation will certainly not be any easier than it is now. Will the Serbs accept the event silently or will they take up arms? Will Kosovars celebrate as cold-blooded Europeans or will they explode beyond any control? So wrote Bajrami in a recent editorial. «Can the big powers keep everything under control or will they run away as they have done so often before? What will happen in Serbia and in Bosnia? Will there be violence or will everything run under controlled tensions?» A number of similar questions would torture Greece if it could get its collective mind off current rumors of political corruption. Will American tourists be staying away? Will Western Europeans avoid the Balkans? Will Eastern Europeans find their road blocked by the prospect of armed conflict in Serbia? These are the least of our problems. There is a small contingent of Greek volunteers in Kosovo. Old voices denouncing the amounts of depleted uranium and the threat that it has represented in Kosovo have been forgotten. The pay for foreign NATO soldiers is good, considering. Once again, Russia made it clear last week that it will not allow Kosovo to become a member of the United Nations under any circumstances – even if it declares independence. And this time Moscow was not merely backing its ally Serbia – it was actively encouraging it to resist until the very last moment that a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo is made. Kosovo has remained nominally part of Serbia since a NATO bombing campaign brought a Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign to an end in 1999. But the 2 million Kosovo Albanians have long made it clear they will be happy with nothing short of independence. And as for the masters, the Serbs themselves, according to recent polls carried out ahead of the Serbian presidential elections last January, 75 percent say that the country should not trade Kosovo for EU membership. On the other hand, the same polls revealed that 69 percent were in favor of joining the EU. And because Kosovo is a European problem, the European Union plans to take over supervision of Kosovo from the United Nations, which has administered the territory since NATO expelled Serbian forces in 1999. Serbia’s President Boris Tadic urged the international community to seek the agreement of the Security Council, saying the alternative would be a «dangerous leap into the dark unknown.» Meanwhile, and while Kosovo and the world prepare for new Prime Minister Hashim Thaci – a commander in the now formally disbanded guerrilla army, the notorious Kosovo Liberation Army – to declare the province’s independence in the days ahead, Kosovo’s society is continuously wracked by corruption and organized crime. According to estimates compiled by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), organized crime accounts for some 15-20 percent of the Kosovo economy – a figure that would presumably be far higher if one subtracts the substantial portion of Kosovo GDP made up of foreign aid. On Saturday at noon, the Kosovo police confiscated some 10 kilograms of a «suspect» substance that was announced to be heroin. The four Albanians who entered Kosovo by the Elezhan crossing, with FYROM, were arrested. The world of pot, heroin, cocaine and human trafficking has found a powerful Balkan stronghold in impoverished, but soon to be proudly independent, Kosovo.