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angle-left null Building democracy on a local basis
Event's background
16 September 2019

Building democracy on a local basis

Kosovo* – 1999

Ulrich BOHNER

After the Vienna Summit in 1993, which gave the Council of Europe the task of welcoming in the new democracies as quickly as possible, the Organisation underwent a profound transformation, developing progressively its capacity to act in the field. In 1999, under very particular circumstances, the Council of Europe Office in Pristina was set up.

June 1999. The United Nations Security Council had just adopted Resolution 1244 on Kosovo,* establishing a kind of United Nations protectorate over that small European territory of some 2 million inhabitants – roughly the same number of inhabitants as Alsace – in the mountains of the Balkans. This came after over 18 months of war, following on from years of conflict caused by the intransigence of nationalist hatred which had been cultivated in Belgrade, in particular, in a manifesto by the Academy of Sciences. In December 1997, we had taken part in a conference intended to bring Kosovo* and Serb leaders together. However, the latter had boycotted the conference, with the exception of a senior official from the Yugoslav Ministry for Foreign Affairs who, without taking part in the talks, had come and offered to discuss the matter at the ministry – an invitation which we had declined.

At the beginning of 1998, a real war broke out and hundreds of thousands of Kosovo* refugees crossed often snow-covered mountains and found uncertain refuge in neighbouring countries. I remember meeting refugees in camps set up north of Skopje and also remember Tirana stadium bursting at the seams with refugees in very difficult circumstances.

An unexpected assignment

In June 1999, we were in the midst of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities session in the Assembly Chamber in the Palais de l’Europe. What were we to do regarding the new situation in Kosovo? The question was whether, given the many visits I had made to the Balkans during the Yugoslav wars (1991-99), I could go there at once so as to establish relations with local United Nations officials and prepare the ground for setting up a Council of Europe field office. The aim would be to support the action of the United Nations in ensuring democratic development in Kosovo by carrying out programmes in the Council of Europe’s fields of excellence: local democracy, of course, but also human rights and training of judges and other legal officers, as well as future police officers, media pluralism, the promotion of civil society and the rule of law, and so on. The Congress had already contributed to this process by setting up “local democracy agencies” in various places in the former Yugoslavia.

There followed an unannounced visit to my office by the Yugoslav Consul General in Strasbourg: “If you travel to Kosovo without going via Belgrade, you are breaking our laws and run the risk of being sent to prison when you next visit!” We trusted in the United Nations mandate. There were no incidents to report when I next visited Serbia!

In that situation, I recalled the words of our former Secretary General, Catherine Lalumière, at the start of her term: the Council of Europe must become a field administration. The idea was that it was not enough just to produce texts (of a reasonably high standard) in Strasbourg; instead, action had to be taken to publicise them and implement them on the ground. While the Council of Europe could be described as a “law-producing machine”, the new situation in Europe meant that it could no longer confine itself to that role: it had to develop a “field” capacity.

Following a quick consultation with my wife (the fighting had not completely abated in Kosovo), I set off for Pristina on 17 June with my colleague, Stéphane Leyenberger. We flew to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, and headed to the United Nations base camp, where bulletproof vests and blue helmets were compulsory, and did some shopping to have enough to get by with at our destination, and so on. So we were all set to head into the unknown! The next day, our convoy of four-wheel drives set off for Pristina, making its way between Kosovo farmers who were returning to their villages with their families, their tractors and the few carts they had managed to save. This was all amid convoys of the JNA, the Yugoslav federal army, which was in retreat. At various places along the way, there were cordoned-off minefields marked with red triangles reading “MINES”. We had taken a “mine-awareness” course, so we knew that stopping and relieving ourselves in the bushes was out of the question! Mines hidden in buildings regularly killed or injured people returning from exile and, for that matter, livestock.

Co-operation of an unprecedented kind

In Pristina, we went to the villa being used by the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General, who had been rushed to Kosovo, the Brazilian, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, one of those outstanding men who do credit to the work of the United Nations. We were put up in a house belonging to Turkish pharmacists who had returned to Pristina two days previously; from time to time, shooting could still be heard in the city. We were invited to take part in the first conferences (in the villa and, later on, the Grand Hotel) to determine the strategy which the United Nations would pursue over the following days, weeks and months. A little later, we moved to the Yugoslav army officers’ mess, which was powered by massive generators during outages of the Obilić power station which ran unreliably on locally mined lignite and had supplied electricity to much of Yugoslavia before the conflict. The United Nations provided me with an office equipped with a small Compaq computer. My first challenge was learning how to use it!

On 15 July 1999, Bernard Kouchner was appointed Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General. He stayed in Kosovo until January 2001. We established good co-operation with him. He was very committed to his task and easy to get on with. I remember flying in his Falcon jet from Villacoublay airbase to Pristina. I also had good relations with the head of the United Nations civilian administration, the German, Tom Koenigs, and with the OSCE representatives, in particular Daan Everts. Many Council of Europe member countries were beginning to open offices in Pristina.

* All reference to Kosovo, whether the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.


If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".


Ulrich BOHNER
Born in Germany, a few months before the end of the Second World War, Ulrich first became politically aware during the Hungarian revolution in October 1956. He worked at the Council of Europe from 1972 to 2009, during which time he was in the Private Office of Secretary General Catherine Lalumière from 1989 to 1994; Head of the Council of Europe Office in Kosovo* for 6 months in 1999 during the Balkan war; and was elected Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in 2003. Now retired, he has been involved in various associations and civic activities and was president of la Maison de l’Europe Strasbourg-Alsace (MESA) from 2011 to 2018.