Albanians love Americans. And Kosovar Albanians... they really love Americans. There are US flags everywhere. When I say I'm American, people smile. I had a meeting yesterday with a guy who had a copy of the US Declaration of Independence on his wall. (Didn't speak ten words of English.) And the second-biggest street in town is Bill Clinton Boulevard. It's not quite as important as Mother Theresa Boulevard -- you did know Mother Theresa was Albanian, right? -- but it's close. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Kosovo is one of those places where everyone has a cousin in Brooklyn. There's a saying in Albania that translates, "Fear not! For you have sons in America." Of course, that's true of a number of countries around here -- Serbia, most obviously -- and it doesn't make them love love love America. No, the big reason is that the US bombed the Serbs out of Kosovo in 1999, thereby releasing the Kosovar Albanians from a decade of apartheid, oppression, impoverishment, and collective misery and humiliation, and enabling them to inflict the same on the few Serbs who were too poor or too stubborn to run away.
Little black Balkan humor there. No, what I meant to say was, freeing the Kosovar Albanians from all those awful things -- really -- and setting them on the path to independence. Kosovo really did have an awful time under Milosevic. From the early '90s onward, Slobo and his allies fired almost all Albanians from government jobs, handed out state-owned properties and juicy monopolies to his cronies, brought in murderous thugs and petty thieves to "police" the province, and set up an explicitly racist apartheid regime whose whole raison d'etre was to grind down the Albanians while looting the place nine ways from Sunday. After 1997, when the Albanians started rebelling, he added bouts of village-burning, midnight murder, and random massacre. The Albanians could never have gotten out of this by themselves. There were about 2 million of them, but there were over 7 million Serbs, and the Serbs were much richer, better organized, and had all the heavy weapons. They could engage in guerrilla warfare, but they had no hope of actually winning... unless some outside power intervened. Which, in 1999, NATO did. I say NATO, and NATO does occupy a fond place in the Albanian heart. You'll sometimes see, for instance, NATO flags added to the Albanian and American flags that fly in front of coffee shops and bars. But the Albanians are pretty clear on who was the dominant power behind the NATO campaign, and by golly they're grateful for it. "Europe," said an Albanian poet once, "is a whore." He was talking about 1913, when Europe stood by and allowed (in the Albanian view) Greece and Serbia to partition most of the lands inhabited by Albanians, leaving only a small rump territory to become the Albania that we see today. Most Albanians seem to know this saying. And while they're not bitter or hostile to Europe -- they want to join the EU one day, like everyone else between here and the Caspian Sea -- they don't trust Europe to protect them. The Americans, though... they can be trusted. Putting aside the complicated history, and the rights and wrongs of it all, it's... pretty refreshing. When I lived in Serbia, I was never in a hurry to announce that I was American. I always did a quick calculation: is this person old, young? Liberal, conservative? Is it likely that they still resent the bombing? I don't do that nearly as much in Romania, but still: there's a moment of hesitation or constraint. Romanians pretty much like Americans, but there are exceptions. And even the ones who like us may sometimes want to engage you in a rambling discussion about George Bush or Iraq or whatever. But here, it's like a little weight has been lifted. I don't have to hesitate a moment. "Yes, I'm American." "Wonderful! Very good!" Smiles all around. It has nothing to do with me personally. Still... it's nice.