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'Kosovo: A Fresh Start: Interview with Ambassador Avni Spahiu, Washington International

For a country with a history that dates back to the Neolithic era, but which became independent just two years ago, the Republic of Kosovo is getting off to a fresh start. Both its ancient and modern beginnings shape the mission of Avni Spahiu, who was credentialed by President Barack Obama last November as the new country’s first ambassador to the United States.

Slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut and with a population of 2.2 million, Kosovo is working hard to overcome a history of oppression that finally has brought it into the international community as a free nation. But as one of the poorest countries in Europe, and with some countries still not recognizing its independent status, Kosovo’s fresh start is encountering bumps in the road that Spahiu is working hard to overcome.

During the medieval period, Kosovo was the center of the Serbian empire, and that has underscored its centuries-long and often war-torn journey that continues to have some diplomatic implications today. After World War II, Kosovo became an autonomous province in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its status changed, however, in the late 1980s, when Slobodan Milosevic propelled himself to power in Belgrade by exploiting Serbian nationalism and the question of Kosovo.

In late 1998, after the Kosovo Liberation Army had been formed to secure Kosovo’s independence, Milosevic unleashed a savage police and military campaign that included widespread atrocities against civilians. “It was a terrible war,” Spahiu recounted. “We had more than 12,000 people killed, hundreds of thousands maimed, wounded, raped — all kinds of terrible things.” More than 800,000 ethnic Albanians were forced from their homes in Kosovo.

That followed nearly two decades in which “we were denied basic human rights,” Spahiu said. Schools were closed. “We had to continue our education in basements and private homes because the police were persecuting people who were attending classes in the Albanian language,” Spahiu said. “It was a difficult time for our people. We tried to find a solution through peaceful means, but it didn’t work. The provocations continued and war was imposed on our people.” It ended only with the intervention of NATO, followed by the United Nations Security Council's adoption of a resolution suspending Belgrade’s dominance.

Although there is peace now, Kosovo’s relationship with Serbia continues to be unsettled, making it difficult for Kosovo to gain the full international recognition that it seeks. But it is making progress and Spahiu is confident that it will achieve its goal.

So far, 65 countries, including the United States and all of Kosovo’s neighbors except Serbia, have formally recognized Kosovo, and last year Kosovo joined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Of the 27 members of the European Union, 22 have recognized the new country. Kosovo intends to become part of the EU as well as NATO. Even though it is part of Europe physically, “we want to integrate into Europe,” Spahiu said.

To do that, Kosovo is pursuing positive relationships with the countries that have not yet offered formal recognition, including Russia, which has chosen to side with Serbia. “We would like to have good relations with Russia. Our message has always been friendly towards Russia, asking them to accept a new reality and a new country because it is to the benefit of peace in the region. Kosovo has proven to be a constructive, stabilizing factor for the region,” Spahiu declared.

Similarly, he said, Kosovo would like to establish good relations with Serbia, but “with Serbia, we have some problems.” Serbia’s “mentality of hegemony” has been caused by the many wars in the region and “we hope they give up that kind of mentality. All the countries in the region are small and they are a small country, too. We don’t need confrontation; we should work together and look forward to the future. We hope Serbia will realize this some day and recognize our country and live as good neighbors,” Spahiu said.

“Our government has expressed its willingness and readiness to discuss practical issues with Serbia,” he continued, “but not the question of status, because that is over. Kosovo has become a country and should be treated as such by Serbia. But Serbia has been trying to block our participation in regional conferences, meetings, and this has made things difficult.”

Serbia also has been “pressing” local Serbs in the north of Kosovo “not to recognize our institutions, not to integrate into our society,” which adds to the difficulties. “Our government has been very cautious in dealing with the Serbs in Kosovo,” Spahiu said. Kosovo has called on Serbian authorities to talk about “how to improve the lives” of Serbians in Kosovo. “They can read our constitution and see what we are doing. The offer is there from our government. We are trying to do the best for the Serbs and for other minorities as well, which all accept Kosovo as a country and are participating in our institutions.”

But “Belgrade is refusing; they say we are not a country so they won’t talk to us,” Spahiu said. “I think it is political. They don’t want to let Kosovo go, no matter what.”

Still, there have been “some good signs,” Spahiu added. 'Serbs participated in the latest municipal elections in Kosovo and four towns now have Serb mayors. There are Serb MPs in Parliament, one of whom is effectively Vice-Speaker, as well as two Ministers in government. Currently, there are 10 set-aside seats for Serbs in Parliament, in addition to however many seats they gain in regular voting.' The Kosovo constitution, Spahiu explained, stipulates that Serbians in the country “will be able to decide their own affairs in the areas where they live.”

Today Kosovo is a nation of three religions — predominantly Muslim and Catholic (Albanians) and Eastern Orthodox (Serbs). Spahiu pointed out that Kosovo’s new flag contains six stars, representing all the country’s ethnic groups. “Even though Albanians make up 90 percent of the population, there are no differences with the minority groups. We don’t even call them minorities. We call them ‘ethnic communities.’ We’re doing our best to accommodate all of them,” Spahiu declared.

Kosovo’s independence is “a very clear case,” he reiterated. “Those who are against Kosovo’s independence say we can not secede. It is not a matter of secession. We were part of a country, Yugoslavia, that disintegrated. It doesn’t exist any more.” Kosovo was one of eight federal units of the former Yugoslavia and “seven of them became small countries and are living in peace,” he said. After resolving some border questions with Macedonia, “we have no open questions with any of our neighbors.”

But there are questions about some other countries have not recognized Kosovo. Among the holdouts is Spain, which is “difficult to understand,” Spahiu said. But Spain currently presides over the EU and has stated that it will not block Kosovo’s participation, “so that’s good enough for now,” Spahiu said.

Greece also has not yet recognized Kosovo as a country although “they recognize our passport and have an office in Pristina,” Kosovo’s capital, Spahiu said. China does not recognize Kosovo, either. “We want to friends with China, of course,” he said, noting that “we have many Chinese who have opened shops” in Kosovo.

Spahiu acknowledges that a question about the legitimacy of Kosovo’s independence, which Serbia took to the World Court, has caused delay in gaining recognition from many countries. The court is expected to issue a non-binding opinion in May or June, “and we are not afraid” of what it will be, Spahiu said. While Russia sided with Serbia in the case, the U.S., Great Britain and “all the other western democracies” supported Kosovo’s independence. “We hope this opinion will once again confirm our right to have our freedom,” or that at least it will be “neutral, stating that no international law has been violated. And we will move forward after that,” asserted Spahiu.

As Kosovo continues to seek recognition and respect in the international community, it also is redeveloping itself domestically and looking for investors to help build its economy. “We have an excellent legal infrastructure and a good banking system,” Spahiu said. With its membership in the IMF and World Bank, “security is better” for investors, who so far include many Albanian Americans, and “there are good prospects for profit,” Spahiu said.

“We would like to see big American companies invest,” he asserted. He said Kosovo is trying to develop a conference for investors, maybe this fall, in Washington or New York. “We will invite some big American companies and show them the investment possibilities in Kosovo,” he said.

Membership in the IMF and World Bank also help Kosovo obtain loans for redevelopment projects, including a highway construction job now underway, supported by the World Bank. Another, also with World Bank support, would increase the country’s electric power capacity based on Kosovo’s coal reserves, the largest in Europe. Government officials said in early March that six international consortiums have expressed initial interest in building a coal-fired power plant in the country.

Kosovo is rich in minerals including lead, zinc and chrome, as well as silver and gold mines, although they are currently closed. “They could become operational in the future, Spahiu said.

Agriculture is a strong resource; the food it produced sustained the country during the war, and with its food processing capacities, Kosovo fills about 70 percent of its needs. It looks forward to exporting its agricultural products, including wine, to the U.S. Before the war, it sold its wines in Europe, particularly Germany, Spahiu said.

But he reminds that Kosovo had to “start over, from zero,” to rebuild after the war. “Everything was destroyed. For more than 20 years, nothing was built,” he says. “We had craftsmanship, silversmiths. Now everything is slowly coming back. The people are trying to get things going again,” with support, he added, “from our friends, including the U.S.,” through the Agency for International Development and other organizations.

Once a Christian land, Kosovo was converted under 500 years of dominance to the rule of Islam, but Spahiu made clear it is different from the fundamentalism in other Muslim countries. “We are European Muslims. We are Muslims who live with MTV,’” he said. “Even though the Serbs tried to portray our fight as fundamentalist, that was not the case. We can not ignore our past, when everyone was Christian. Our oldest authors and intellectuals were Christians. The first writers, who wrote the first books in Albania, were Catholic priests.”

Albanians are a nation of three religions — predominantly Muslim but also with Catholics and Orthodox Albanians — and “we are very tolerant of each other; we have never had any religious problems,” Spahiu said. “We believe in God just like the other big religions, but we are not overcome by fanaticism, and we hope we will be able to preserve that. There are influences in the modern world trying to get into Kosovo and influence our young people, but that has not been acceptable to our general population.”

With an average population age under 30, young people are one of Kosovo’s greatest resources, a “demographic dividend” for the country and “a blessing, but also a headache,” he said. The blessing is that they are highly educated and trained in information technology and other fields. The headache is that it is difficult for them to find jobs in a country with an unemployment rate above 40 percent, another problem that more foreign investment could help remedy.

Kosovo today is a modern, European culture of young people, Spahiu said. It also is a culture of artists, writers and poets. “I think suffering produces good poets,” he said. He cited Ibrahim Rugova, a professor and writer who led a nonviolent Albanian resistance movement in the early 1990s and whose heroism is a key element of Kosovo’s character now. “He followed the only road the true intellectual may follow — being against violence. He tried to save his people,” Spahiu said.

Rugova’s peaceful movement failed to yield results and was followed by Milosevic’s brutal campaign, “but that period is cherished as something very valuable for the soul of our nation. It united our people in the cause of freedom,” Spahiu said. Children in Kosovo’s schools are taught about it. “It should not be forgotten,” Spahiu declared.

Education is important to Kosovo and Spahiu cites the single public university and many private ones throughout the country, including the American University in Pristina, affiliated with Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology.

As it continues to improve its economy and infrastructure, Kosovo is starting to promote tourism and has hired Saatchi & Saatchi, a global advertising agency, to help in the effort. “We have so many other problems, but we want people to know about the country — its people, culture, scenery,” Spahiu said. There are flight connections to Pristina through many European countries, he pointed out. Americans in particular will feel “at home” in Kosovo “because everybody likes them; they helped us,” Spahiu asserted.

That is why “it is an honor and privilege” to be the first ambassador of his country to the U.S., said Spahiu, who was a journalist before his diplomatic appointment. But he had to get the embassy off to a fresh start. “We had to set it up from scratch,” he said. “It is the youngest embassy in Washington,” currently housing Spahiu and four staff members in an office suite in Georgetown.

While seeking more economic development assistance from the U.S. public sector as well as private investors, Spahiu spends much time these days lobbying other ambassadors for their countries’ recognition of Kosovo. “We want to make our presence felt among the diplomatic community in Washington, and let them know that Kosovo exists as a new country,” Spahiu declared. “We have to build our image.”