PRISTINA, Kosovo — Teuta Sahatqija, Kosovo’s envoy to the U.N., lives every day with bitter memories of the war that ripped her country apart 20 years ago.
On April 5, 1999, Sahatqija fled her home in the village of Gjakova with her husband and their four children — ranging in age from 4 to 10 — as neighbors’ houses were burning and corpses littered the streets.
“I found myself in the middle of the road with all the kids, not knowing where to go,” she said. “Without food or security, we were forced to flee through the mountains, and ended up in Albania — first in Krumë, a town near the border, then to Tirana. Up until today, so many families don’t know where their loved ones are.”
Some 13,500 people are believed to have been killed during the two-year conflict between Serbia and its former restive province, while over 1 million Kosovars were displaced. According to Kosovo government statistics, 1,641 people are still missing.
“Serbia knows where their bodies are, but they are not releasing that information,” Sahatqija claimed. “Unfortunately, it’s a matter of politics.”
These days, politics and the ghosts of the past pretty much define the life of Sahatqija, a seasoned diplomat who according to her country’s protocol carries the rank of ambassador, but whose official title is consul general of Kosovo in New York.
“Kosovo is a special case,” she explained in an interview in Pristina, her nation’s capital city. “Regardless of the title, every nation knows what our true mission is.”
Sahatqija’s objective: to get as many nations as possible to establish diplomatic relations with Kosovo, and have her small, struggling country admitted to the U.N. — and eventually NATO and the European Union as well.
But five EU member states — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain and Slovakia — still refuse to establish ties with Kosovo. Russia, China, India, Iran, Israel and, of course, Serbia have all given Kosovo the cold shoulder. So has Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, even though 95 percent of Kosovo’s 1.8 million inhabitants profess Islam.
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 regards to secessionist movements in their own countries.
“It’s been almost 20 years since the liberation of Kosovo and 11 years since our declaration of independence,” Sahatqija said. “We need full, complete normalization of relations with all our neighbors, and for Kosovo to have full access to all international organizations.”
We caught up with the 56-year-old former lawmaker at a café down the street from Kosovo’s parliament, where, until moving to New York two and a half years ago, she served for more than a decade representing her party, the Democratic League of Kosovo.
In addition to her native Albanian, Sahatqija is also fluent in English, Serbian, French, Turkish and Italian. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electronic engineering from the University of Pristina.
Sahatqija frequently meets with other countries’ ambassadors to the U.N. and often attends receptions hosted by countries that have already recognized Kosovo. Despite the lack of direct communication between Sahatqija and her Serbian counterpart at the U.N., she said, “I have a lot of friends in Serbia, and when I was a member of parliament, I initiated a dialogue with women parliamentarians from Serbia.”
She hopes that “the second Kosovo is admitted to the U.N., our mission will change only its name, but our work will continue as before.”
Modern-Day Mistrust Rooted in Centuries-Old Hostilities
But that won’t happen until Kosovo overcomes its bitter feud with neighboring Serbia.
One-third the size of Maryland, landlocked Kosovo was once an autonomous province of Serbia. 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.”
Sahatqija’s own birthplace, Prizren — a quaint, compact city bisected by the picturesque Bistrica River flowing under graceful stone bridges — was the capital of the entire Serbian Empire in medieval times. But over the centuries, ethnic tensions gradually built up between the predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbs and Kosovo’s Muslim Albanian-speaking majority.
During World War II and until the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Serbia was the largest of the six republics that made up the Yugoslav federation. Following the bloodshed in the Balkans that saw the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, strongman Slobodan Milošević 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.
It’s hard to overstate the enthusiasm average Kosovars feel for Americans given their role in liberating their territory. Pristina’s main landmark is an 11-foot-high bronze statue of of President Clinton — a show of gratitude for the man who launched the NATO bombing campaign that paved the way for Kosovo’s independence nine years later.
And in November 2017, Kosovo’s post office issued a 2-euro stamp featuring Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — the first time in living memory a U.S. congressman has been so honored. As a lawmaker, Engel pushed hard for the Clinton administration to intervene against Milošević, who had engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Kosovars.
While Serb forces were guilty of committing the majority of atrocities during the fighting, Kosovo is not completely blameless, either. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which prompted Milosevic’s crackdown by launching an insurrection to secede from Serbia and create a “Greater Albania,” has also been accused of war crimes. That includes gruesome crimes against Serbs, including the alleged trading of organs harvested from prisoners of war.
While the allegations against the now-disbanded KLA do not rise to the level of those lobbed at Serb forces, the KLA’s own spotty track record gave U.S. officials pause during the debate over whether to intervene in the war.
“U.S. officials were aware that moralistic rhetoric cloaked political risks: Intelligence agencies privately warned that the KLA was trying to provoke Serbian massacres in hopes of persuading NATO to support its bid for independence,” wrote Cameron Abadi in a Jan. 2, 2019, article for Foreign Policy.
Ultimately, U.S. officials decided to back the KLA, resulting in a quick, decisive victory over Serb forces. Abadi argues that while the brief U.S.-led military offensive has been largely forgotten by Americans, it marked a key inflection point in international politics, setting a precedent for future interventions and widening the schism between the West and Russia.
“The war started a conversation about humanitarian intervention that continues to this day. The agonized policy debates in recent years about entering Syria and Libya to oppose brutal dictators are reprisals of concerns first raised in the Balkans,” he wrote. “The Kosovo war also foreshadowed the return of great-power politics, spurring the rise of revanchist nationalism in both Russia and China that the West contends with today.”
The issue of Kosovo continues to divide Russia and China on the one hand and Western nations such as the U.S. on the other. Over Serbian — and Russian — objections, Kosovo seceded from Belgrade in 2008. Animosity from the Balkan wars remains palpable, and while both Kosovo and Serbia want to join the EU, 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.
Possible Military Escalation
In 2013, the two Balkan neighbors made tentative steps toward reconciliation, agreeing not to block the other’s path toward EU membership. But ongoing disagreements have largely derailed those efforts.
Most recently, Kosovo slapped a tariff of 100 percent on Serbian goods in response to Belgrade’s efforts to block Kosovo from joining international organizations such as Interpol.
Another dispute erupted in late December when Kosovo’s parliament approved the creation a 5,000-man standing army, along with 3,000 reservists, over the next decade.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said the move violated international law and warned that it could provoke a military response by Belgrade, especially if the newly formed army targets the remaining Serbs in Kosovo, who number around 120,000 in an otherwise ethnic Albanian population of 1.8 million.
Sahatqija countered that her country’s military plans don’t represent a threat to anyone.
“Why should Serbia be concerned that Kosovo has an army?” she asked. “Each and every sovereign state has its own army. Under our constitution, we are not allowed to fight foreign wars, so our army is for protection, and that should be an added value to all neighboring countries, and to NATO.”
The U.S. ambassador to Kosovo agreed that it is “only natural” for a sovereign state to have an army to defend itself, but NATO officials disagree. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted after the announcement that he regrets “the decision to initiate a change of the Kosovo Security Force mandate was made despite the concerns expressed by NATO.”
Land Swap — or Ethnic Cleansing?
Many experts say it’s unlikely that Kosovo — or Serbia, which maintains its own 28,000-strong army — will want to start a confrontation that would trigger a response from NATO. But many experts worry that another proposal, ostensibly aimed at resolving tensions in the region, could wind up exacerbating them.
Last June, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi floated the idea of “correcting borders” in exchange for settling the issue of Kosovo’s statehood. This would likely entail Pristina giving Serbia control over a Serb-populated province in northern Kosovo. In return, Serbia would cede control of three Serbian municipalities in the strategically important Preševo Valley that are inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians.
U.S. and EU officials were initially receptive to the controversial land swap deal, which supporters say offers a practical solution to a seemingly intractable problem. But others, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are alarmed by the prospect of redrawing borders along ethnic lines. They warn that carving up territory based on ethnicity not only sets a dangerous precedent for the world, but in particular for a region where ethnic grievances have fueled some of history’s most devastating conflicts.
Sahatqija declined to comment on the ongoing “land swap” talks, which have since largely stalled.
“I wouldn’t enter into a conversation about what this dialogue can bring,” Sahatqija said, declining to speculate on whether Kosovo and Serbia will make a deal. “It is up to both countries and the EU, with U.S. help, to find an agreement that is suitable for both parties.”
Yet not all Kosovars (or Serbs for that matter) favor such an exchange of territories. Some don’t want to give up territory or be uprooted from their homes, while others say it may open a Pandora’s box in the Balkans, reigniting old wounds in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.
Agron Bajrami, editor in chief of Koha Ditore, Kosovo’s leading newspaper, called the proposed land swap just another form of ethnic cleansing.
“It could turn into a nightmare,” he wrote in an October 2018 article for The Guardian. “This land swap would result in fewer Serbs living in Kosovo and fewer Albanians in Serbia. Both countries would become more ‘ethnically pure.’ Many people would have to leave their family homes and birthplaces. In short, there would be an exchange of populations, not just territories.”
He added: “Creating ethnically homogenous territories and states (in short, getting rid of minorities) is hardly a new idea. In Kosovo, throughout history, it’s happened many times. And it has always left deep wounds that simply won’t heal.”
Kosovo: ‘A Bipartisan Issue’
In December, in the wake of the proposed land swap and the creation of a Kosovar army, Trump sent a letter to Thaçi prodding him to make a deal with his Serbian counterpart and end the standoff.
“Failure to capitalize on this unique opportunity would be a tragic setback, as another chance for a comprehensive peace is unlikely to occur again soon,” said the letter. “The United States has invested heavily in the success of Kosovo as an independent, sovereign state.”
In response, Thaçi wrote a Jan. 8 letter in which he said that he is “ready and willing to make compromises necessary to reach a comprehensive and balanced settlement,” although he offered no details on what those compromises might entail.
America’s continued support, both political and financial, is critical for the impoverished Balkan nation. After Trump’s narrow election victory and before he actually took office, there was some concern among Kosovars that his administration would take a less friendly approach toward their situation than the Democrats had. Those fears were compounded by Trump’s adulation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his constant ranting against NATO, which has been protecting Kosovo’s borders ever since independence.
Yet such concern is unfounded, said Sahatqija, because for the United States, Kosovo is a bipartisan issue.
“It doesn’t matter whether one or another party is in power,” she said. “Kosovo was liberated during the Clinton administration, but we declared independence during the Bush administration. So no matter who is president, Kosovo has the sympathy of both parties. Remember that the statue of Bill Clinton is on a boulevard named after George W. Bush.”
Kosovo has worked diligently to cultivate ties around the world, including the United States. 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, Switzerland and Germany.
Kosovo’s New York mission fronting Second Avenue, just a few blocks from U.N. headquarters, employs six diplomats, each of them responsible for a different part of the world. One of them, Ines Demiri, has been particularly instrumental in generating support for Kosovo among Jewish Americans. Her father, Votim Demiri, is the patriarch of the country’s 56 Jews, nearly all of whom live in Prizren.
“Ines is doing a great job,” Sahatqija said. “Thanks to her, we’ve established strong ties with the Jewish community in New York.”
Even so, Kosovo’s warmth toward its Jews hasn’t translated into recognition by Israel.
“The Israelis never said so clearly, but their fear is that it might resemble the issue of Palestine,” Sahatqija said. “But this has nothing to do with Palestine. Kosovo is a product of the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It’s the seventh state. Everybody already recognizes six states, so it’s unimaginable why they don’t recognize the seventh.”
As if to drive home the paradox, Sahatqija pointed out that Serbia’s wars didn’t involve only Kosovo.
“In the 1990s, it had four wars against Slovenia, Croatia and a bloody war of genocide with Bosnia. Kosovo was the fourth victim of Serbian aggression,” she said, noting that 375 Kosovars were massacred in the village of Meja on one day alone. “Even so, Serbia has diplomatic relations with all those other countries. It’s about time we recognize each other and work for the future.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.