Don's Diary

April 9, 1999

Wednesday

A taxi for Manchester Airport pulls into the drive. I am going first to Macedonia for a three-day conference on "Problems of Transition" and early next week on to Albania for a Tempus planning meeting with our German partners from Siegen and the two universities in Tirana. I am aware that Nato has given another "final" ultimatum to Milosevic, but after so many ultimatums over the past few years I have decided not to be put off this trip by another.

At the airport, told that they cannot issue me the boarding pass for the second leg of my journey (Vienna to Skopje). I get the feeling that things might not be quite right on the onward flight. At Vienna, I am relieved to find the Skopje flight is boarding. In the lounge I see an unusual mixture of people - TV reporters with video cameras and boxes of equipment, army types with cropped hair and a few academics, who, like me, are going to the conference. On the plane, I highlight the important sections of my paper, selecting appropriate slides. They have rerouted the flight and we are not flying over Yugoslavia.

At Skopje, Macedonian colleagues take us to the Grand Hotel. Conference participants from the UK, US, Austria, Sweden, Bulgaria, Poland, Moldova and Ukraine meet for a meal and return to the hotel to find out that Nato planes have gone into action and bombed targets across the whole of Yugoslavia.

Thursday

The conference programme looks packed. The organisers begin by thanking the foreign guests for their bravery in turning up to an academic conference in the middle of a Balkan war. We hear that about a third of participants from the UK, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia and Yugoslavia have cancelled their trips. Good - more time for the rest of us. We also find out that airports in Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have been closed since the previous night. I realise that I was on the last flight to Skopje. The chair asks all participants to "suspend" their imaginations and concentrate on the conference. We all try.

During the coffee break, all talk is of the bombings. People here sympathise with Serbia and are antagonistic towards Kosovo Albanians and therefore oppose the bombings. They deny that Albanians in Kosovo are being persecuted and hounded out of their homes.

At night, we drink at the bar of the new Aleksander Palac Hotel, unaware that a few hours earlier foreign journalists staying here were attacked by a stone-throwing mob. We are surprised to see so much stone in the car park. In the hotel, I discover that earlier that afternoon a crowd of about 2,000 people set fire to two cars outside the US embassy.

Friday

The conference resumes. The old academics from Macedonia criticise the transition policies in Macedonia and other East European countries, highlighting the costs of this process - decline in output, unemployment, job insecurity, etc. An American colleague and I remind them of the benefits of transition - living in a democratic society and the disappearance of chronic shortages. They say they like the benefits, but that these could have been achieved under self-management in Yugoslavia. The former Macedonian finance minister, Taki Fiti, defends liberalisation of prices and foreign trade under his stewardship and points to the low inflation and stable macroeconomic conditions that have been created in Macedonia. The old guard do not agree - but I don't suppose anything will change their minds.

Later, I try the British embassy's phone number to find out if they have advice on getting out of Skopje. There is an answering machine message saying that because of the troubles on Thursday and expected troubles today the embassy is closed.

We go for a walk outside the US embassy. Today, the scene is calm - young people are playing music, another group is roller-blading.

Saturday

I finally decide to give up on Albania and join the others on a bus to Sofia. The conference continues. It is clear that the group is divided into at least two camps. One is nostalgic and continues to criticise policies adopted across Eastern Europe over the past eight years.The other sees the change as unavoidable. News of the bombing and shooting down of three Yugoslav Mig 29s over Bosnia mars the optimism of the final speeches.

Sunday

The bus is waiting for us early. The representative of the Austrian airline wants us to sign a disclaimer that we are travelling at our own risk. I ask what the risk is. He says don't worry, there won't be any bombing during the day, then gives us advice for the Bulgarian border crossing. The border guards are not happy with the bombings, he says, and can be uncooperative and difficult. Do not smile at them. Do not look them in the eye and do not show any impatience. They may make us miss the flight.

Later, I find out that a German colleague had to travel to the port of Dures, take the boat to Bari and stay the night there before flying back to Germany. But we both agree that we must return to Tirana soon. Our colleagues there must not feel that they are isolated or forgotten.

Iraj Hashi. Reader in economics at Staffordshire University.

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