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Envoy Seeks Legitimacy for Kosovo On Its First Year of Independence
The Washington Diplomat / March 2009

By Larry Luxner

One year after independence, the world's youngest country is seeking legitimacy and forging friendships — though not quite as fast as its leaders would like.

At last count, the Republic of Kosovo had diplomatic ties with 54 nations. The first to recognize the breakaway province was Costa Rica, which did so hours after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008. Albania, Turkey, France, Great Britain and the United States quickly followed the next day.

So did lonely Taiwan, which is itself recognized by only 23 countries. Kosovo's newest friends are Micronesia and Panama — the latter establishing ties with the Albanian-speaking entity on Jan. 16. Diplomats from all these nations were expected to gather Feb. 25 at Washington's Embassy Suites Hotel for a big one-year birthday bash attended by Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other dignitaries.

Avni Spahiu heads Kosovo's tiny mission in the United States, by far his country's most powerful ally. As charge d'affaires (the ambassador title will come a few months from now), Spahiu praises the "commitment and dedication" of his two million fellow Kosovars for helping make the dream of independence a reality.

"When we think about it now, it's hard to believe," Spahiu told The Washington Diplomat in an interview last month. "But the idea of independence is not recent. Kosovars have been trying to free themselves from Serbia for at least 100 years. With the fall of communism and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, we were convinced that, like all the other former units of Yugoslavia, we should have our freedom as well."

That sentiment is far from universal. In fact, most of the world's countries have either ignored or actively opposed the new government in Pristina, often for reasons unrelated to the Balkan conflict. These include heavy hitters like China, India and Russia — as well as tiny states like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, St. Kitts-Nevis, Singapore and the Vatican.

"If we were to recognize Kosovo, which has declared its independence without an agreement with Serbia," said Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, "we would set a dangerous precedent that would seriously threaten our chances of a political settlement in the case of the Falkland Islands."

Haris Silajdzic, chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, said that considering his country's "Republika Srpska" enclave has threatened to secede from Bosnia and join Serbia as compensation for losing Kosovo, Bosnia "is unlikely to recognize Kosovo's independence anytime soon due to strong objections from its own Serb community."

Greek-speaking Cyprus said it would "never recognize a unilateral declaration of independence outside the United Nations framework" out of respect for Serbia's territorial integrity. Likewise, a Libyan government spokesman said the Qaddafi regime "strongly supports the position of Serbia regarding Kosovo, despite the pressure from the European Union and some Islamic nations to recognize" the new state.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said Kosovo's recognition by the United States and other world powers as "a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries."

And faraway Sri Lanka, which is battling its own Tamil Tiger separatists in a 25-year-old civil war that has taken 70,000 lives, said in a statement issued by its Foreign Ministry that Kosovo's independence "could set an unmanageable precedent" that would "pose a grave threat to international peace and security."

Meanwhile, the United Nations, according to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, "has maintained a position of strict neutrality on the question of Kosovo's status," even though the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo has pretty much run the country since NATO drove out Yugoslav forces in 1999.

None of this seems to faze Spahiu, who worked for several years as a correspondent for the banned Albanian-language newspaper Rilindja before becoming political adviser to the late President Ibrahim Rugova, considered the father of modern Kosovo independence.

Spahiu, born and raised in the town of Mitrovica, was also deeply involved in Kosovo's human rights movement and has translated over 20 works of literature, poetry and philosophy from Albanian to English and vice-versa. He helped establish the Kosovo Information Center, a news agency, and also headed Kosovo's RTK broadbasting network.

Four months ago, he was appointed to head his country's diplomatic mission in Washington.

"We think United States support for Kosovo will continue, because it was strong during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and we see no reason it would be different with President Obama," he said. "We are very happy Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are in the new government. They have both been to Kosovo and know the problem."

Separately, Spahiu said several of the world's largest Muslim countries are on the verge of recognizing Kosovo — though he declined to identify which ones just yet.

"We expect that in the future, even Serbia will recognize the new reality and be a good neighbor to Kosovo, which will be a very positive thing for the entire region," said the 52-year-old journalist-turned-diplomat. "We could open up a new chapter in our relations, leaving the past behind."

And what a past it is. As Robert Kaplan, author of the best-selling book "Balkan Ghosts" points out, 1989 will be remembered in most of Europe as the year communism crumbled and the Iron Curtain came down for good.

But to Serbs, that year marks the 600th anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo — an epic struggle in which the Serbs lost to the invading Ottomans. This event was such a defining moment in the evolution of Serb nationalism that to this day, a monument near Pristina bears this warning: "Those who are Serbian and have a Serbian heart and do not come to battle for Kosovo will not have children — neither male nor female — crops, or wine. They will be damned until they die."

In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic stood at that very monument and addressed a crowd of one million Serbs, inciting nationalistic fervor. A short time later, he stripped the local Albanian majority of the political autonomy Tito had given them and incorporated Kosovo into Serbia itself.

Yet Serbia has no rightful claim to Kosovo, insists Spahiu.

"We know that when Serbia was formed as a country in 1878, it did not include Kosovo. And in 1912, Serbia occupied Kosovo and made it part of Serbia," he said. "The Albanians never agreed to this, even though Josip Broz Tito [who ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980] tried to appease the Albanians by grantiung them special status. He feared the Serbs; otherwise, he would have been more generous with them."

Spahiu added that between Tito, a Croat by birth, and Milosevic — a convicted war criminal who died while in custody in 2006 — Tito was by far the lesser of two evils. "At least in Tito's time, we got some schools, even though the repression went on," he said.

Today, 92 percent of the country's people are ethnic Albanians, nearly all of them Muslims (though there are a few Albanian Catholics as well). In addition, Kosovo is also home to 150,000 Serbs, most of them Orthodox Christians.

From 1990 to 1996, Kosovo was ruled directly by Serbia, but by early 1998, increasing tensions between Milosevic and the outlawed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) led to outright war. But the turning point came with NATO's bombing campaign. Between Mar. 24 and June 11, 1999, NATO forces flew over 38,000 combat missions involving more than 1,000 aircraft.

NATO's procaimed goal, as summed up by its spokesman at the time, was simple: "Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back." Within a week, Serbia's efforts at ethnic cleansing were intensified, resulting in the exoducs of over 300,000 Kosovars into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. By April, the UN had reported that 850,000 people — most of them Albanians — had fled their homes.

Eventually, Milosevic was forced to pull his troops out of Kosovo and admit defeat. According to Spahiu's estimates, more than 12,000 people died, 60,000 were injured and 7,000 disappeared during Kosovo's war with Serbia.

"Thanks to NATO intervention, they stopped the fighting. Otherwise, those figures would have been much worse," he said.

Following the war, Kosovo was administered by UN bureaucrats as negotiations dragged on. Many observers saw eventual Kosovo independence as a foregone conclusion.

"Independence finally came after decades of war and persecution," said Spahiu. "Now that we have achieved it, my government has been trying to build up a democratic society in which all the people would feel at home, including the Serbs. But we've had some problems integrating the Serbs, especially in the northern part of the country."

The diplomat insists that Kosovars do not want revenge, even though Kosovo's Serb minority "doesn't accept" the new reality.

"The Serbs in Kosovo are being pressured by Belgrade not to accept Kosovo as their own country. But there will be a time when they'll accept this," he said. "There were periods in history when Albanians and Serbs lived together in peace."

Last October, Kosovo opened embassies in the United States and nine other countries: Albania, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Spahiu says a dozen more embassies will be opened soon, mainly in European countries.

For the moment, Kosovo's mission in Washington is quite small: Spahiu and two first secretaries comprise the entire staff, which works out of a four-suite office on the fifth floor of a building on 19th Street NW. But this is only a temporary home.

"We're looking to buy a building. We want to find something decent," he said, adding that he's willing to pay "around a few million dollars."

Spahiu said his office has been deluged with requests for passports, since many of the 400,000 Kosovars living in the United States — primarily New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston — arrived on now-obsolete Yugoslav passports.

Interestingly, while Kosovo proudly issues its own passports, it lacks its own currency. Instead, its citizens use the euro for all transactions.

"We didn't want a currency," he said, "because we knew that sooner or later, we will be joining the European Union. Why should we be excluded? Our future is with NATO and the EU."

Yet that's a far-off dream for now. Annual per-capita income hovers only around $1,000, and unemployment exceeds 40 percent in what is arguably Europe's poorest country — even poorer than Albania, which for years was burdened with that dubious distinction.

"During communism, we were better off than Albania. But for the last decade, nothing was invested or constructed in Kosovo. Everything was destroyed. We lost a lot during that period while Albania was making strides," he said.

Nevertheless, Kosovars are generally hopeful about the future — and they depend less on remittances from their families in Europe and the United States than they used to.

"We want investments, and now we have a very good legal infrastructure for attracting foreign companies," said Spahiu, estimating the country's annual budget at around $1.5 billion. We want to show other countries that we're open for business and that we will protect foreign investors."

To date, there have been few takers, though prominent Albanian-American businessman Harry Bajraktari has poured some money into Kosovo's wine industry. Kosovo remains one of the only places in Europe without U.S.-style fast-food franchises.

Spahiu, whose wife and three children will soon be joining him in Washington, said he spends most of his time meeting other ambassadors here, along with State Department officials as well as influential leaders of the Albanian-American community.

High on the diplomat's list of favorite politicians is Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), whose Bronx district is home to thousands of ethnic Albanians from both Albania and Kosovo.

"Engel made the Kosovo issue known in Congressional circles," Spahiu told the Diplomat."He pressed the [Bush] administration to act on Kosovo, and he helped pass several resolutions in Congress, together with many others such as Tom Lantos and Benjamin Gilman."

At the same time, he conceded, "we have to work on Kosovo's image. We know that for a long time, the Serbs have been publishing all kinds of things about Albanians, portraying them as criminals. But traditionally, Albanians as well as Kosovars have been decent people, trying to make a living by honest means."

To that end, Kosovo's Foreign Ministry has hired advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi Ltd. to develop a slick PR campaign and counter those who portray his country as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism and ethnic hatred. Ironically, the $7.3 million contract will be handled by Saatchi & Saatchi's subsidiary in Israel — a nation that still has no diplomatic relations with Kosovo.

"Those who know Albanians understand that we practice a moderate brand of Islam. We are not radicals," said Spahiu. "We are a nation known for tolerance among religions. There has never been any acts of intolerance, and we are going to maintain that policy."

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