The Washington Diplomat / April 1998
By Larry Luxner
Until last month, few Americans had ever heard of Kosovo. But a sudden explosion of ethnic violence in early March has thrust this obscure Balkan territory into the nightly news and onto the front pages of the world's major newspapers.
The hatred between Serbs and Albanians is so deep that even the spelling of its name is a source of controversy. The Serbs, who have ruled the area since 1912, consider Kosovo the cradle of their civilization -- a status that goes back to the Turkish defeat of Serb forces during the Battle of Kosovopolje in 1389.
The ethnic Albanians who comprise 90% of the territory's population, meanwhile, spell it "Kosova." They dream of the day when their self-styled Republic of Kosova -- measuring 4,252 square miles, about twice the size of Delaware -- will break free of Serb domination and possibly unite with Albania to the west.
"Our job is to try to educate our friends in Washington that any solution which does not include independence for Kosova is going to be fragile and temporary," says activist Sami Repishti. But he admits that, despite daily reports of Serbian killings, executions, rapes, tortures and mutilations of Albanian civilians, "chances are minimal that the United States would recognize an independent Kosova."
Repishti is president of the National Albanian-American Coalition (NAAC), a Washington-based lobby that serves as the Republic of Kosova's de facto embassy in the nation's capital. The organization was formed in June 1996, following the establishment of a $30 million Albanian-American Enterprise Fund to encourage private investment in newly democratic Albania. The NAAC operates out of a small rented office on I Street.
"In the beginning, we tried to establish a base of operations for regular contacts with the White House and Congress. Then things moved a little bit faster, and we decided to set up a council with an office in Washington," said Repishti, an academic who escaped from his native Albania in 1959 -- at the height of Communist rule there -- and eventually settled in New York, where he earned a doctorate in French literature.
Repishti, 73, says the NAAC represents the interests of nearly two million Kosovars, since Kosovo's dominant political party, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), doesn't have a presence in Washington despite an invitation from President Clinton to open a representative office here.
"The purpose of our office is to strenghten the friendship between United States and the Albanian nation," he said. "When we speak of the Albanian nation, we have in mind Albanians in Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. Whenever a problem arises in any of these countries, we have made our presence known. We have tried to be as credible as possible, to not be swayed by emotions and to respect all the rules of the game."
That hasn't been easy in the face of increasing tensions following the breakup of Yugoslavia. In March 1989, President Slobodan Milosevic abolished the constitution of Kosovo and the limited autonomy that had been granted 44 years earlier by Tito's Communist government. Violent demonstrations ensued, with over 100 Albanians killed and thousands arrested.
Albanians in Kosovo responded by forming political parties -- the largest one being the LDK under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova. In July 1990, the Parliament of Kosovo declared the region an "independent political unit," and Serbia enacted martial law. Later that year, the Parliament, in hiding, declared Kosovo a "republic" and approved its first constitution. On Oct. 17, 1991, a government-in-exile was formed, and soon after, an independence referendum was approved by 99% of Kosovo's Albanian population, who also elected Rugova president.
Repishti says Rugova -- seen frequently on TV wearing his trademark scarf -- is one of the most respected political leaders in the Balkans.
"I believe we have established a good credibility in Washington," he said. "Rugova has been received several times in the White House, and has been honored three times -- once by Warren Christopher, twice by Madeleine Albright. He's totally predictable, and he never pulls any surprises with the United States or Europe. He's the model of resistance, and is determined not to use violence."
Nevertheless, Rugova's peaceful resistance movement has suddenly been eclipsed by more violent groups. In fact, it was the killing of Serb police and Albanian collaborators by Kosova Liberation Army extremists which set off the latest round of violence.
Repishti says it was only a matter of time.
"Many Albanian youths are deeply frustrated by recent developments. They have no education or schooling. Unemployment is around 80%, and Albanians who escaped to Germany, Austria and Switzerland are beginning to be sent back. There's no future for them. They are forced to become rebels."
The NAAC, which has several hundred members throughout the United States, is pressuring Congress and the White House to send more troops to the region. Some 500 American soldiers are already stationed along Macedonia's border with Serbia as part of a larger UN peacekeeping force. Albanian leaders in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania are urging NATO to send its own troops to the Albanian-Yugoslav border in order to prevent the conflict in Kosovo from spreading.
Meanwhile, the lobby is trying to rally ordinary Americans to its cause. The group hopes to attract 10,000 people to a protest against Serb atrocities set for Mar. 25 in front of the White House. The NAAC has the support of the Albanian Embassy in Washington -- not surprising given the fact that Albania is the only country in the world which recognizes the Republic of Kosova.
"We are caught in a legal mumbo-jumbo," says Repishti. "There were six republics in Yugoslavia, all of which enjoyed the right of secession. Kosova was not formally recognized and not entitled to secession. There's no doubt any new arrangement for Kosova will have to be somewhere between special status and independence."
Asked if the conflict is likely to spread to Macedonia, Albania and other nations that have a stake in the future of Kosovo, Repishti had this to say:
"The Macedonian government is relatively weak. They do not hide the fact that the spillover of Albanians from Kosova could very well bring down the government and eventually the state of Macedonia. Everything depends on the intentions of Milosevic. If he realizes that no matter what he does he's not going to subdue the Albanians in Kosova, then things may quiet down. But if he thinks he has enough strength to crush the Albanians and that the international community won't do anything to stop him, then this definitely will spread outside Kosova."