Looking Back

It’s only after several years of reflection that one realises the physical and social changes that have occurred in the countries in which one has worked – countries which were slowly evolving under your nose at the time. I spent several months in the mid 90s in eastern Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova where the locals had never seen a Westerner and had been totally isolated from the outside world. This was especially the case in Ukraine. It’s hard to believe now that, in the pre-internet age in 1995, no one in the town of Kharkiv had had any real contact with the outside world. The whole city had existed by manufacturing top secret military hardware. There were no satellite TV dishes for international viewing, no recognisable restaurants, and no concept about events happening in other parts of the world. Today, we are aware of what has happened around the other side of the world within minutes of it occurring .

In Kharkiv, we were dealing with companies that were using technology from the 70s. The engineers thought they were at the cutting edge as they’d not been exposed to any new ideas and it was quite a challenge to enlighten them in a way that did not come as too much of a shock to them.

Even the architecture was depressing. All the buildings were made from concrete, very grey and drab and built to a Soviet standard design with little variation. There were no buildings constructed from steel with facades of glass which was quite normal in Western capitals. You don’t realise the dampening psychological effect it has on you until you return home.

Living in that environment was quite claustrophobic but also quite liberating as there was a lot less to think about. There was a simplicity to life. It was impossible to obtain any information about international events as all the TV and press were State controlled. Eventually, on my way home, passing through Zurich airport I recall spending five pounds, a small fortune at the time, to buy a Financial Times just to find out what was happening in the world. It was quite a relief.

Five to ten years later much had changed in Ukraine, from the architecture, universal access to the internet and satellite TV, and an awareness of what was going on in the world. There was even Macdonalds in the major cities which was a huge cultural change.

In November 2000, however, I was the one experiencing cultural change when I visited recently war torn Kosovo. Arriving from a stable United Kingdom to Pristine was a shock. Seeing the news on the TV is not like seeing it in the flesh. Bombed out buildings, rubbish everywhere, walls with hundreds of photos and names of ‘missing’ relatives, and a very fragile infrastructure. Every other vehicle was a white UN-marked Toyota or military vehicle.

There was a feeling from the locals of both relief and gratitude at being liberated from their Serbian masters. What was also palpable was the resentment from the Albanians towards the Serbians for the decades of ethnic discrimination both socially and in employment. If you were Albanian there was no chance of obtaining a job in a state owned enterprise (SOE). One of the positive consequences was that, because the Albanians had had to run their own businesses, they were much more entrepreneurial than those who worked in the SOEs.

Driving between towns made one realise the horrors that had occurred. Every hundred yards or so there would be a cross marking a grave or where someone had been shot. In subsequent visits, years later, these unpleasant reminders had been removed.

A visit to Gjakova revealed a large pile of concrete rubble which, we were told, was the remains of the police station that had been demolished by the Albanians after the war. The reason was to obliterate the awful memory of a place where scores of Albanians had been tortured and killed.

In Peje I visited a prominent businessman who ran the largest company in the town. We were invited to his office. In order to break the ice I mentioned the Albanian flag hanging on his wall. He stood up and removed the flag revealing black stains. ‘This is where my partner was shot by the Serbians. I keep it to remember him.’

One weekend I asked my driver to take me over the mountains to Albania. At the top of the mountain he burst into tears. I asked him to stop the car and he told me that this was the spot where they’d been escaping in a bus when they were stopped by the Serbs and told to get out. Several were shot.

A few years later, in 2002, I was in Belgrade working on a project to privatise SOEs. Shortly after arriving I asked my newly appointed driver what he did before working for the project. He explained that he was in the army. I asked was he in Kosovo to which he replied yes. It’s not a subject I brought up again.

In a subsequent visit to Peje in 2007 one of my Albanian colleagues described how he’d had to escape in the dead of night, through the roof and across other roof tops, to avoid being shot by the Serbs.

(I’m not being partisan by citing the Serbs and their atrocities. There were similar ‘retaliations’ by the Albanians, but obviously I wasn’t told about them.)

What is astonishing about the above rather random experiences is that, on a one to one basis, as individuals, people in general are pretty decent. But when you add the toxic mix of politicians and ethnicity, people can be manipulated to carry out the most horrific crimes, even after living quite peacefully side by side for many years. Regrettably, the Balkans is not the only example over many decades, and most likely will not be the last

My first USAID project, in Pristine in 2000, was to train bright young adults to become business consultants in order to develop businesses across Kosovo. By the time of my last visit in 2007 and 2008, funded by the EU, it was a delight to discover how most of those that we had trained were in significant and important roles in the political and business community.

Sometimes, after these projects have finished, one wonders if they’ve made any difference and I think that in this instance it had, albeit small.

My last observation of social change was how, over the years in Kosovo, tight conservative practices of weddings and courting were slowly eroded. In 2000 the idea of a young couple living together without being married was unthinkable. In my subsequent visits up to 2005 I noticed that, in the capital, young couples were living together, but in the provinces it was still not the done thing. By the time of my final visit in 2008, this liberalisation had permeated from the capital Pristine to nearly all the regions and it was mostly acceptable for young couple to live together without getting married. (I’m not making a moral judgement either way but just observing the social change.)

Fred Neale

May 2021

Fred Neale is an engineer with extensive experience in running and developing commercial enterprises. Since 1995 he has worked as a consultant for USAID, the World Bank, the EBRD, UNIDO, and the EU on restructuring and refocusing manufacturing plants in Eastern Ukraine, the former USSR, the Balkans, and North and West Africa.

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