The Washington Diplomat / February 2017
By Larry Luxner
Overlooking Bill Clinton Boulevard in Kosovo’s capital city, Pristina, is an 11-foot-high bronze statue of the 42nd president — a show of gratitude for the man who launched a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 to force Yugoslav troops out of Serbia’s restive province. That paved the way for Kosovo’s independence nine years later.
These days, maybe a golden statue of Donald Trump — or at least a Trump hotel — might prove more useful when it comes to scoring points with the White House.
In fact, no one knows how the new president will deal with the Balkans or if he’ll deal with them at all, given his disdain for details, his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his well-publicized hostility toward NATO and the United Nations.
Yet for Kosovo, which seeks membership in both bodies, foreign policy in the age of Trump is a matter of national survival — and few Balkan diplomats will be watching him more carefully than Vlora Çitaku, Kosovo’s glamorous, eloquent young envoy in Washington.
Çitaku, 36, spoke to The Washington Diplomat about her country, its struggle for recognition and its efforts to combat violent Islamic extremism even as some of its young men have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight on behalf of the Islamic State.
“I belong to a generation of Europeans whose lives were saved because of the U.S. role, and we’ve been lucky that Kosovo is a bipartisan issue,” she told us in early January. “We’ve made our initial contacts with the Trump administration, and we have absolutely no reason to suspect that anything will change. We certainly believe that U.S. leadership in the world will remain intact.”
Optimistic words indeed from an ambassador who warmly praises the role NATO played in liberating her country, but fears that Moscow’s meddling in southeastern Europe will persist long after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration as the nation’s 45th president.
“The Russians were directly involved in trying to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO and have tripled their diplomatic presence in the region,” she charged. “Nonetheless, we believe that the new U.S. administration will remain committed to the Euro-Atlantic perspective — not only for Kosovo but for Montenegro, Albania and Serbia itself. We hope the next administration will consider all the facts and data. Working with Russia is not necessarily a bad thing. We just hope this relationship will convince Russia to stop its destructive role in our part of the world.”
The tiny country Çitaku represents is home to 1.8 million people, about 90 percent of them Albanian-speaking Muslims. One-third the size of Maryland, landlocked Kosovo was once an autonomous province of Serbia, which itself was one of the six republics comprising the former Yugoslavia. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Kosovo was so central to Serbia’s cultural, diplomatic and religious life that it was known as the “Serbian Jerusalem.”
Following the bloodshed in the Balkans that saw the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic fought to maintain Belgrade’s hold on Kosovo during the 1998-99 war. But after NATO launched an intense aerial bombing campaign to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, Serb forces were driven out and the area fell under U.N. administration.
Over Serbian (and Russian) objections, Kosovo seceded from Belgrade in 2008. While the two Balkan neighbors have taken tentative steps toward reconciliation, the ghosts of the past continue to prevent both sides from fully moving forward. Animosity from the Balkan wars remains palpable, and while both Kosovo and Serbia want to join the European Union, Brussels says both sides must normalize relations before they can join the bloc.
So today, Kosovo is a sovereign republic with its own president, flag and stamps, but not its own currency. Its people use the euro, although Kosovo isn’t a member of the eurozone or even the EU. Adding to the irony is the location of Çitaku’s embassy, which occupies a small third-floor office in the same K Street building leased by the EU to which it does not belong.
Since Kosovo declared independence nine years ago this month, on Feb. 17, 2008, 113 nations have established diplomatic relations with Pristina. The first was Costa Rica (followed by seven other countries, including the United States, on Feb. 18); the most recent were Suriname and Singapore, both of which extended recognition in late 2016. On the other hand, dozens of countries have refused to recognize Kosovo, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. Also on that list is South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in July 2011 and in so doing replaced Kosovo as the world’s newest country.
Some countries have held back recognition of Kosovo in solidarity with Serbia and the Orthodox Church, others because of the precedent it would set with regard to secessionist movements in their own autonomous regions, for example Spain’s Basque region or China’s Tibet.
“It’s sometimes been a very difficult and painful journey, because we not only have strategic friends and partners but also strategic opponents — nations that fight Kosovo’s acceptance in the world,” Çitaku said.
Indeed, Serbia and its friends have lobbied hard against recognition of Kosovo.
“Our position on Pristina’s unilateral declaration of independence remains firm and unchanged,” declared Çitaku’s counterpart in Washington, Serbian Ambassador Djerdj Matkovic, in an email to The Diplomat. “We continue to oppose it, as it represents not only a breach of principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty and international law, but also as a way of setting a dangerous precedent for other similar cases.”
Matkovic said his country will continue to pursue its legitimate interests “in its southern province” of Kosovo by peaceful means.
“We attach such a high priority to dialogue and compromise because we strongly believe that promoting and supporting unilateral moves and declarations have never led to lasting peace, stability and prosperity,” he told us.
Yet dialogue and compromise seem to be sorely missing at the moment, as Kosovo’s former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, was arrested in France last month on a warrant issued by Serbia. Haradinaj, who briefly served as prime minister between 2004 and 2005, was a guerilla commander in the fight against Serbian rule and has been accused by Belgrade of committing war crimes, including the kidnapping, torture and killing of Serb civilians. As of press time, Haradinaj remains in custody as France processes Serbia’s extradition request.
The arrest has threatened to derail the EU-brokered talks between Serbia and Kosovo, although Çitaku insists EU membership will ensure Kosovo’s future security.
“The EU is going through some very challenging moments right now, the migration crisis being one of them as well as Russia’s growing appetite,” Çitaku said. “For us, joining NATO and the EU is not a matter of vanity. It’s existential. First and foremost, joining NATO will mean that no neighbor will ever again use military force to attack us or deport us from our homes.”
Çitaku said Kosovo — which signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU and has a “platonic relationship” with NATO — is working to gain international recognition in tandem with nation-building at home. Although it has enjoyed economic growth in recent years, the country continues to struggle with unemployment, poverty, structural problems and brain drain.
“Once you are free and independent, you realize that survival is not the only worry,” the ambassador said. “You have houses to build, roads to pave, electricity to provide, laws to adopt. But you also want to make sure you have a seat at the table. Independence without interaction is not sufficient, especially in today’s world where most of the challenges we face as a region are borderless.”
These challenges include everything from cyber threats to terrorism to climate change.
“We cannot afford black holes in the region and black holes in the world map overall,” Çitaku warned. “I am proud to announce that Kosovo has so far been successfully accepted in over 50 regional and EU organizations, but we’re struggling to get membership in the United Nations.”
That is largely because of Serbia and its allies, namely Russia. Yet the ambassador insists that Serbia’s main problem isn’t Kosovo or its declaration of independence.
“It is denial,” she argued. “They refuse to accept their historical responsibilities for what has happened — not only in Kosovo but also in Bosnia and Croatia. They want to erect a statue of Milosevic because they still have not faced the past.”
She continued: “They’re in a mood of self-victimization. Imagine if Germany today would commemorate D-Day as a day of mourning. So they somehow still think it’s the international community’s fault that there was a NATO airstrike against Serbia. They still blame everybody but themselves. Dealing with the past is difficult, and very often more for the perpetrators than for the victims.”
Wounds of Centuries-Old Battles Still Fresh
It’s clear that Çitaku considers herself and her fellow Kosovars the victims in this ongoing, centuries-old ethnic battle between the predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbs and Kosovo’s Muslim Albanian-speaking majority.
Born in 1980, the future ambassador grew up as a refugee, with a front-row seat to the civil war that killed an estimated 10,000 people and shaped her own destiny. She says she’ll never forget the day Serbian soldiers deported Çitaku and her three sisters to neighboring Macedonia — separating them from their parents — as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign that affected millions throughout the former Yugoslavia.
“It’s not like I had options growing up. Being engaged in politics was a way of survival and expressing our rebellion and dissatisfaction with the status quo. I got involved at a very young age,” she recalled. “When I was a child in the third grade, there was a wall — literally, a wall with bricks — inside our school that separated the discriminated majority and the privileged minority. I remember feeling very guilty because I thought it was our fault, and that we must be terrible.
“Later I organized the students and we painted the wall with peace messages, rainbows and flowers. I saw my schoolteacher beaten in front of me by Serbian police. Shortly after that, my parents were forced out of their jobs as university professors. Every single Albanian working in the University of Pristina was fired. What we did then was quite extraordinary: We organized a parallel life. People turned their private homes into schools.”
In 1998, Çitaku began working as a stringer and interpreter for Time magazine and other media, since all the Albanian-language outlets had been closed.
“Every household in Kosovo had a satellite dish. People would cut down on food just to have money to get a dish,” she recalled. “That’s how I learned my English. We watched satellite channels broadcasting from Albania, Germany and elsewhere. It was our only window for information.”
Çitaku became a spokeswoman for the self-styled Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and eventually joined the demilitarized KLA’s political wing, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). She served two terms in parliament before becoming acting foreign minister and later minister of European integration. Following a stint as Kosovo’s consul general in New York, she became ambassador to the United States in August 2015 and is especially active on social media, with nearly 65,000 followers on Twitter and 22,000 on Facebook.
Among other things, Çitaku was part of the negotiating team in Brussels that reached a deal in April 2013 between Kosovo and Serbia that called for everything short of outright diplomatic recognition.
“We have exchanged diplomatic liaisons. We have an office in Belgrade, and they have one in Pristina,” she explained. “We shook hands in Brussels, but when it comes to implementing what we agreed on, it becomes difficult. There’s a dichotomy in Serbia.”
Çitaku says that for Serbs, the Kosovo issue is simply not that important. “Every opinion poll conducted in the last five or six years shows that Kosovo is far down the list. Their priorities are jobs, the economy and getting a better education.”
Serbia’s Matkovic says the Kosovars should clean up their own house before lecturing his country on priorities.
“Regardless of Pristina’s attempts to draw a picture of an ideal society, the security situation in the province is still characterized by the absence of physical and legal security for the Serbian community.”
An estimated 150,000 ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo — mostly in five specific municipalities that border Serbia itself. In late August, violent protests broke out after local Serbian pilgrims attempted to visit an Orthodox church in the once-mixed village of Mushtisht. Albanian Muslims carrying KLA banners pelted the pilgrims with rocks and bottles, forcing them to turn back and leading politicians from both countries to condemn the violence.
“Serbia doesn’t see anything normal in a mass manifestation of hate toward Serbs who just wanted to gather at the remains of their houses and church to pay respect,” said Marko Đurić, head of Serbia’s government office for Kosovo. “If Serbs are not allowed to do that, how can we even talk about a future perspective in Serb-Albanian relations?”
Çitaku acknowledged the deep ethnic scars present in her fledgling country but insisted that the Balkan wars were never about religion, but rather about nationalism and Serbia’s attempt to force its hegemony on the region.
“The Albanian population in Kosovo has historically preserved Serbian Orthodox heritage,” she said. “In fact, Milosevic did not close our mosques; he closed our schools, so our religion was never a problem for him. Our ethnicity was, although when the actual war erupted, many religious sites were destroyed as well.
“Kosovo is ready to move on, but Serbia needs to be ready to let go. We cannot build a future if we live in denial,” she added. “We cannot change history and we cannot change geography. Blessed or doomed, we will be living next to each other for the rest of our lives. And that’s why reconciliation and mutual recognition are so important.”
Model of Tolerance, Or Extremist Pipeline?
Kosovo may be on less-than-friendly terms with its neighbor, but it’s worked diligently to cultivate ties around the world, including the U.S. In fact, more Kosovars live outside their country than in it, with 300,000 in the New York metropolitan area alone; large immigrant communities also flourish in Detroit and in Germany, Switzerland and other EU member countries.
“Our U.S. diaspora has played a crucial role in the process of liberation and state-building,” Çitaku said. “We organized a parallel system of education and health that was financed predominantly by supporters in the diaspora. Everybody in Kosovo has an aunt or uncle or brother or sister living somewhere in Europe or the United States.”
Çitaku said Kosovo enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Some of its best friends are Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa (curiously Kosovo has a consulate general in Des Moines, of all places) and Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who has thousands of Kosovar immigrants in his Bronx congressional district. “Eliot Engel was our ambassador way before we had an embassy here,” she quipped.
For now, remittances bring in €700 million a year, or about 30 percent of Kosovo’s GDP, which comes to about $3,700 per-capita. The country’s agriculture- and service-based economy grew by 3.7 percent in 2016 and is projected to expand by 5 percent this year, making Kosovo the fastest-growing country in Europe.
But Islamic extremism, or at least the perception of it overseas, clearly threatens Kosovo’s official narrative.
In May, the New York Times reported that Saudi money and influence had turned the once-tolerant U.S. ally into a hotbed of “Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists.” The article said Kosovo now has more than 800 mosques — 240 of them built since the war — including one only yards from the Bill Clinton statue in downtown Pristina.
“All around Kosovo, families are grappling with the aftermath of years of proselytizing by Saudi-trained preachers,” wrote Times correspondent Carlotta Gall. “Some daughters refuse to shake hands with or talk to male relatives. Some sons have gone off to jihad. Religious vigilantes have threatened — or committed — violence against academics, journalists and politicians.”
Over the last two years, according to the article, Kosovo’s police have identified 314 Kosovars — including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children — who have left to join the Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe.
Yet Çitaku says that’s simply not true. And an article in The Nation by Lydia Wilson, who interviewed fighters returned from Syria, calls its findings into question, noting that knowledge of Islam “is perfunctory” and “secularity a matter of pride.”
“For more than a year, the number of Kosovars who have joined ISIS [Islamic State] has been zero. It is true that Kosovo was not immune to this problem, but overall we never were, and never will be, a source of destabilization,” Çitaku told us. “Right after the war ended in 1999, we had 19 NGOs spreading Islamic radicalization. It is true that Kosovo was open not only to good and positive influences, but also from not very good influences. Most of the time, the local population resisted the radical elements. In fact, Kosovo is a very secular country and we have tried to preserve this for centuries. For example, we would not only celebrate Bayram, a local Muslim holiday, but also Christmas.”
Considering Kosovo’s Muslim heritage, it’s surprising that only 23 of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s 57 member states recognize its independence; some of its members — including Azerbaijan, Egypt and Morocco — are on record as being opposed to it.
At the same time, Kosovo is cultivating close ties with Israel, with which it seems to have a lot in common.
“We are both among the most pro-American nations on Earth,” Çitaku said, estimating that her government has received about $2 billion in U.S. aid since the end of the war. “We were also a nation whose people were deported from their homes. We see a lot of similarities between Kosovo and Israel, and although the Israelis have not formally recognized Kosovo because of their own domestic reasons, they have always been very supportive.”
In fact, in mid-November, authorities in Kosovo foiled a terrorist attack in the Albanian city of Shkodër. Engel, ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the planned massacre by Islamic State extremists could have been as bad or worse than the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
“Kosovo has built an impressive record confronting violent terrorism,” the congressman said in a press release. “No one should doubt the commitment of leaders in Pristina to meet this challenge, and the United States is fortunate to have a partner like Kosovo in this important effort.”
Çitaku said Kosovo was among Europe’s first countries to adopt legislation and strategies to counter violent extremism, noting that her government has shut down “19 NGOs that fed radicalization and that were financed with suspicious funds.”
In addition, Kosovar authorities have launched investigations against 199 people, resulting in 102 arrests. Of those, 70 were indicted, and 34 have been convicted. Today, about 50 Kosovars are fighting in Iraq and Syria. But because of measures taken by authorities, in the last 12 months not a single Kosovar has joined the Islamic State.
“Kosovo is an example to follow,” said Vice President Joe Biden following his visit to the region.
Meanwhile, Europe’s newest country is making its mark in sports and culture. Specific sources of inspiration include “Shok,” a short film set in war-ravaged Kosovo in the 1990s that was nominated for an Oscar last year; Doruntina Sylejmani, a winner in last year’s International Mathematical Olympiad; and 22-year-old judoka Majlinda Kelmendi, who not only led Kosovo’s eight-member delegation at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but also took home the country’s first-ever Olympic medal — and a gold one at that.
“Majlinda was offered millions to play for other countries, while Kosovo was still struggling to become a member of the International Olympic Committee. She declined these offers and waited for her chance to represent her country,” Çitaku said of Kelmendi, a double world champion who competes in the 52-kilogram weight category. “She has given all of us a lesson — especially for us working in the public sector — that not everything is for sale, and there are things money cannot buy.”