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Creating a new country

If you occasionally wonder why we need a state at all, you should visit a place like Kosovo
IN THE village of Velika Hoca - now a Serbian ghetto guarded by Dutch tanks - a woman called Snezana jabbed an angry finger at me. "I don't know where I live any more," she said. "Is it Serbia? Is it Yugoslavia? Is it... whatever?"

The correct answer is: Whatever. In Kosovo, the so-called "international community" has embarked on an extraordinary adventure. We are setting out to build a whole new state, while pretending not to. Even in Somalia or Cambodia, the United Nations never had a job as ambitious and complex. Every aspect of a state has to be built literally from ruins. Yet because of the ambiguity of the peace deal with Milosevic and the subsequent UN Security Council resolution, attention has to be paid to the continued formal sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over the devastated province.

It's a test case for post-Cold War liberal internationalism. A war justified as a humanitarian intervention leads to an international protectorate, which in turn is supposed to end with a viable, self-governing... um, er... something. How can it possibly work?

The job starts with the most elementary necessities of life: water, shelter, food, electricity for heat and light. Crops are destroyed. You see the severed heads of dead cattle along the roads. Rubbish lies all over the place, stinking. It is not cleared, unless the local Nato troops do the job. The troops are also getting the hospitals working again. But the soldiers can't go on doing these jobs. Civilians have to take over. Here we have one major ally: the hardiness and resourcefulness of the Kosovar Albanians. It's incredible, and moving, to see people who have lost their houses, their savings, their equipment, cattle, everything, just starting over with a wry shrug of the shoulders. They're used to adversity. They'll survive - and rebuild.

But some of them are stealing what they need to rebuild; and a few are killing Serbs in revenge. When I was there earlier this month, there were still virtually no civilian police - although in the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, I did meet a spruce colonel of the French Gendarmerie, fresh from Versailles. If you occasionally wonder why we need a state at all, you should visit a place like Kosovo that has none. This has advantages, of course. For example, you don't need to worry about speeding fines. But you can also get robbed or killed at night, and no one will take any notice.

Everyone agrees that the top priority now is law and order, which means bringing in international civilian police and appointing judges to support them. Then local police are to be trained: the gendarme from Versailles or the bobby from Liverpool is to patrol the streets side-by-side with a local cadet. But what laws will they enforce? At the moment, the answer given is: the criminal code of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, modified by international human rights conventions when Yugoslav law violates them.

Then there is the matter of schools for the children who currently line the roadside, selling cigarettes and giving the V-for-Victory sign to any passing Westerner. And what about work for their parents? A week ago, I was shocked to learn that the UN administration still had no senior economic expert in place. For the economy is central to the prospects of recovery. Here, the problems deriving from the ambiguity of status are acute. Cafes, restaurants and shops may reopen easily enough, but most large companies still have Yugoslav owners.

Then, who will set and collect the taxes? And what about border controls and customs duties? (At the moment, the only control at the infamous Blace frontier crossing is by gum-chewing American soldiers.) And a currency? The German mark is the universal unofficial tender. A restaurant owner turns up his nose when my companion offers Yugoslav dinars. A formal currency reform, such as in Bosnia, where the official currency is now the konvertibilna marka (exchange rate fixed at one KM to one mark), would be the best thing for the economy. But wouldn't that tear away even the pretence of Yugoslav sovereignty?

Meanwhile, Pristina's newly reopened cafes are filled with idealistic, suntanned foreigners - earnest Danes, charming Chileans, quiet Americans. They hardly knew where Kosovo was six months ago; now they are running it. "Hello, we met in Rwanda," they greet each other, or "Weren't you with the OSCE in Kazakhstan?" Their byzantine, polyacronymic structures of international administration are to be superimposed on a "transitional council" of Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, with local consultative commissions for various practical aspects of reconstruction.

Beyond this polit-bureaucratic pattern there is the informal, sometimes inspiring, often corrupting reality of interaction. The names of the military occupation force, Kfor, and the skeleton civilian administration, Unmik (United Nations Mission in Kosovo), have already become Albanian and Serbian words. "Unmik" is pronounced with a short "u", as in "unpick", and Kfor is pronounced "kufaw", as in "guffaw". Prices of decent apartments soar. A whole local industry grows up servicing the internationals: restaurants, drivers, interpreters. Blerim Shala, editor of the leading Kosovar Albanian weekly Zeri, tells me that he is having difficulty getting his journalists to come back to work for him, since they can all earn three times as much working as interpreters for international organisations. Some of the pretty girls among them will get married, and start new lives in Stockholm, Paris or a small town in Texas.

In the longer term, Kosovo simply can't work as a colony. The international architecture alone is far too complicated. There are endless disagreements and turf wars between the international organisations, starting with intense rivalries between the UN's own different agencies. There are even greater differences between the participating nation states, including all those absurd matters of prestige. Thus, Britain has the military commander, so France has to get the civilian governor - and poor old Kosovo is lumbered with Bernard Kouchner. Meanwhile, the Americans are taking a whole street of houses for a 50-strong embassy (sorry, non-embassy) to run the show from behind the scenes. Then, having all stuck their fingers in the pie, the major powers will lose interest before the job is done - as domestic political priorities turn elsewhere.

The key to making this unprecedented experiment work therefore lies in enabling the Kosovars to govern themselves, as much as possible, as soon as possible. Full, formal independence is not the most urgent thing. That must and can wait until Serbia itself becomes more democratic and co-operative; and perhaps even longer. What matters is giving substance to those "democratic self-rule institutions" to which even Milosevic has already agreed. One great advantage here, as against Bosnia, is that the vast majority of the population is of one nationality. Even special minority privileges for the few remaining Serbs - and there is, ironically enough, a case for such privileges - will not change that.

The great problem is the fissiparous nature of Albanian politics. Already, this small territory with less than two million people has one unofficial president, two unofficial prime ministers and at least five political parties or proto-parties. For the Kosovars themselves, this is a historic test. There is a real danger that they will prove incapable of taking over to govern themselves in a half-way organised, civilised fashion. And, as we all know, long-term dependency breeds irresponsibility.

So I find myself, over an evening drink with a British official, discussing whether old Rugova can still pull the votes; whether something can be made of young Thaci; or if Kosumi might be a "player" after all. Almost as my grandfather, who was an imperial civil servant in India, must have sat on a verandah in Delhi in 1929, wondering what old Gandhi was up to, and if young Nehru could be brought on. It's a rum way to end the 20th century.

The writer's `History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s' is published by Penguin