It is a little known sidebar to the Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s that a temporary car park in Islington Green was briefly annexed by the KLA. At the time I had offices across the road, above Regulation, a retailer of torturing equipment for S&M gays—but hey, this was north London.
I used to park my Mafia staff car—a stately black Mercedes—on a weekly, cash-only account of varying amounts. My new friends the Kosovan refugees rewarded me—for my custom, for having a cool car, shaved head and for bothering to talk to them at all—with a gaudy red and yellow keyring emblazoned with a black eagle and the initials UÇK. The car park chieftain, proud (nay, amazed) to be free to walk the streets of London, emotionally made me an honorary member of their brotherhood and invited me to invest in a scheme he was developing involving renting rooms in Soho to provide work for pretty girls. I politely declined.
I did a bit of publishing business with Russia at the time. Checking into Pulkovo Airport after an enervating couple of days in St Petersburg I was vividly made aware of the significance of my kitsch gift. Passing through the metal detectors I was marched to a side room and interrogated as to my connections with the Kosovo Liberation Army, darlings of Islington and the rest of the free world, symbols of a tortured and oppressed majority, but not so well thought of in the Slav-inclined CIS. A desperate mobile call to a friend—a crime writer, PEN activist and former Amon special forces operative—and all the roubles I had left got me on the plane home. The kleptocratic Russian customs folk contemptuously returned the keyring—it’s somewhere round the house to this day.
So welcome to independence, Kosovo. I can’t imagine the Russian view has changed that much. For this particular westerner, ill-informed involvement with the KLA yielded a couple of hours of tension and a dinner party anecdote. I fear the west may pay a bigger price for backing the lesser of two evils back in those terrible days of Balkan conflict. Still, how were we to know those sad-eyed Albanians in their black leather jackets would turn out to be genocidally jihadist neo-Nazis? We were too busy helping them usurp the genocidal Serbian neo-Nazi Christians (in their black leather jackets).