Home The Washington Diplomat March 2009 Envoy Seeks Legitimacy for KosovoOn Its First Year of Independence

Envoy Seeks Legitimacy for KosovoOn Its First Year of Independence


One year after declaring its 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 55 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 the Maldives, 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 chargé d’affaires (the ambassador title is supposed to come a few months from now), Spahiu praises the “commitment and dedication” of his 2 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 though. 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, Russia and India — as well as tiny states like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, St. Kitts and Nevis, Singapore and the Vatican (also see “Nations Worry Kosovo Split May Inspire Other Breakaways” in the March 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“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 — in a long-standing dispute with Turkey over the Turkish-controlled side of the island — 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.

Even faraway Sri Lanka, which is battling its own Tamil Tiger separatists in a 25-year-old civil war, 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.”

But the most vocal opposition to Kosovo’s independence — other than of course Serbia — comes from Russia, whose prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has said Kosovo’s recognition by the United States and other world powers is “a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries.”

Russia has also linked Western recognition of Kosovo to its policy toward the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose independence Moscow formally recognized after its brief war with Georgia last year.

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 U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has pretty much run the country since NATO drove out Yugoslav forces in 1999. Likewise, the European Union has no official position toward Kosovo’s status, though it has decided to deploy an EU mission to replace UNMIK and ensure an international presence in the impoverished Balkan republic.

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 more than 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 broadcasting 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,” said the 52-year-old journalist-turned-diplomat. “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.”

That “problem” is a long and complex one. 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 Serbia — which considers Kosovo its cultural and spiritual cradle — that year marks the 600th anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, an epic struggle in which the Serbs lost to the invading Ottomans. The 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, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stood at that very monument and addressed a crowd of 1 million Serbs, inciting nationalistic fervor. A short time later, he stripped the local Albanian majority of the political autonomy that Josip Broz Tito, the founder of modern Yugoslavia, had given them and incorporated Kosovo into Serbia itself.

Yet Serbia never had a 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,” Spahiu said. “The Albanians never agreed to this, even though Tito [who ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980] tried to appease the Albanians by granting 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 at The Hague 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.

For a while, Kosovo tolerated direct rule by Serbia under Milosevic, although by early 1998, increasing tensions between the Serb leader and the outlawed Kosovo Liberation Army seeking secession led to outright war. To halt the Serb crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists, NATO intervened with a massive bombing campaign. Between March and June 1999, NATO forces flew more than 38,000 combat missions involving some 1,000 aircraft with a simple goal, as summed up by its spokesman at the time: “Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back.”

Within a week of the campaign, Serbia’s efforts at ethnic cleansing intensified, resulting in the exodus of more than 300,000 Kosovars into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. By April, the United Nations reported that 850,000 people — most of them Albanians — had fled their homes. Eventually though the NATO assault forced Milosevic 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 U.N. bureaucrats as international negotiations on the province’s final status dragged on. Many observers saw eventual Kosovo independence as a foregone conclusion, and its divorce from Serbia officially marked the last chapter in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“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.”

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 home to 150,000 Serbs, most of them Orthodox Christians.

And most of those Serbs continue to boycott the government in Pristina, living a completely separate life from the Albanian majority. In fact, most younger Serbs and Albanians do not even speak each other’s languages, and many cars in the Serb part of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica bear no license plate, for instance, in a sign of Serb refusal to recognize Kosovar authority.

But Spahiu says that Kosovars do not want revenge on the Serb minority even though it “doesn’t accept” Kosovo’s 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 insists. “There were periods in history when Albanians and Serbs lived together in peace.”

For now though that appears unlikely. Serbia has taken its case to The Hague, petitioning the International Court of Justice to make a ruling on Kosovo’s legal status, possibly next year.

In the meantime, Pristina is pressing ahead with its own diplomatic courting. Last October, it 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 in 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,” Spahiu said, adding that he’s willing to pay “around a few million dollars.”

Spahiu noted that his office has been deluged with requests for passports, especially because 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, although 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,” Spahiu 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 class=”import-text”>2009March.Balkans.txt,000, and more than half the population lives below the poverty line in what is arguably Europe’s poorest country — even poorer than Albania, which for years was burdened with that dubious distinction.

Indeed, beyond international reluctance to fully embrace Kosovo is the fact that the new republic still has to build a brand new future for itself. As the Guardian wrote the day after Kosovo declared independence, “The government in Pristina will have to try to forge a nation out of the poor Balkan backwater, in the face of determined resistance of a sizable minority. There will be a lot of practical problems — dealing with an unemployment rate of over 40 percent, infrastructure that has been neglected for decades, the hostility of Kosovo’s former rulers in Belgrade and their Russian backers, all set against the soaring expectations of the ethnic Albanian majority.”

Spahiu concedes his homeland is up against a lot. “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 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 class=”import-text”>2009March.Balkans.txt.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 and influential leaders in the Albanian-American community.

High on the diplomat’s list of favorite politicians is Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), 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.”

Spahiu concedes that “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 to develop a slick PR campaign and counter those who portray Kosovo as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism and ethnic hatred. Ironically, the .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.”

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,” he said. “We could open up a new chapter in our relations, leaving the past behind.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.