May-June 2018 Articles

A conversation with Kosovo's Ambassador Vlora Citaku

This year, Kosovo celebrated the tenth anniversary of its secession from Serbia, to become the world’s youngest independent country. The small, western Balkan state (population 2 million) was born out of the savage conflict of the 1990s even as Yugoslavia exploded violently into its component ethnic parts. In breaking away, Kosovo’s majority population of Albanian Muslims had the strong support of the United States and its Western allies, which continues. But a decade later, Kosovo’s Ambassador Vlora Citaku is still having to use the term “unfinished business” more than she would like to in describing the jagged edges that still need to be smoothed out in Kosovo’s bid for sovereign statehood.

As Serbia’s patron, Russia continues to block Kosovo from becoming a member of the United Nations. Five European countries, including Spain and Cyprus, have withheld recognition of Kosovo in large part because of separatist issues of their own. Kosovo sees membership of the European Union as its economic salvation, but Brussels has set reconciliation with Serbia as a precondition for membership of both countries (Ambassador Citaku told Diplomatic Connections that Pristina and Belgrade
are working on it.) Albanian Kosovars make up 90 percent of the population, but the Serbian parliamentary minority continues to prevent Kosovo from voting to form its own army. Meanwhile, about 4,600 NATO troops, including 650 U.S. military based at Camp Bondsteel in Eastern Kosovo, are deployed in Kosovo as a tripwire against possible Serbian aggression, and – says the ambassador – as “a geo-strategic balance” against any Russian aggression.

Kosovars – at any rate the older generation – live with the dark memory of the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Muslims by Serbian authorities, and Ambassador Citaku is no exception. A million Kosovo Albanians were deported during a period when the knocking on doors was the nightly drumroll announcing deportation and worse. But while Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his government clearly and justifiably bear the main responsibility for a tragic chapter in Balkan history, hardly anyone connected with the conflict emerges totally free from criticism. Last minute negotiations organized by the U.S. and Russia in Rambouillet, France, collapsed because of an apparent lack of will on anyone’s part to make any concessions whatsoever.

Some felt the Clinton administration used bullying tactics with the Serbs, and NATO’s 78 days of air strikes that finally forced Milosevic to withdraw his troops from Kosovo caused great devastation in Serbia. The Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization, were said to have needed no lessons in brutality in retaliating against the Serbs.

The Kosovo government is only now coming around to helping repatriated war victims in an organized way through pensions and group therapy. Some observers feel there are today two Kosovos: the Kosovo of the post-war generation who look towards the European Union for the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams; and the other Kosovo in which ethnic hatred is held in check by a fragile peace that could break down any day. Complicating the situation, say these observers, is the more recent threat of spreading fundamentalism in the Islamic community, with young fighters being recruited for ISIS. Ambassador Citaku calls that a story of four years ago. She says a secular minded Islamic society has brought fundamentalism under control.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador, thank you for agreeing to this conversation with Diplomatic Connections. I’d like to start by asking you about your own career because you seem to be all over the place. You were five years in the Kosovar Assembly, in other words you were a parliamentarian -

Ambassador Citaku: Yes.

Diplomatic Connections: And then you went to journalism school in the United States and in France - 

Ambassador Citaku: I did that simultaneously with being in parliament – I did courses in the U.S. and in Paris specifically designed for young leaders from Kosovo.

Diplomatic Connections: And then you went into diplomacy. You were deputy foreign minister, and even foreign minister for a while. How did that come about?

Ambassador Citaku: My career course was exceptional because the circumstances were exceptional. For me being involved in our national movement for liberation and for freedom came very naturally, and I don’t think it was a choice. I used to dream of being an artist or a schoolteacher, but when you’re oppressed dreams are suspended. I was too young to fight, but joining the cause and then later being politically active was just a natural response to the situation. And I’m glad that the younger generation in Kosovo no longer have to do what I did.

Diplomatic Connections: You must have been the youngest foreign minister in Europe.

Ambassador Citaku: Until the Austrian foreign minister, yes. But my record has been broken (when Sebastian Kurz became Austria’s foreign minister in 2014 he was 28).

Diplomatic Connections: And then you were minister for European integration, which meant what exactly, given that Kosovo is not a member of the European Union?

Ambassador Citaku: Precisely. We established institutional coordination in order to prepare the country for joining the European Union. My job back then was to make sure that any piece of legislation that was adopted in Kosovo was aligned with the European Union, and also every institution and every regulation was aligned with the ones in the European Union.

Diplomatic Connections: Sounds like a reverse Brexit.

Ambassador Citaku: Exactly. Later on, I was the negotiator for establishing our association with the EU.

Diplomatic Connections: So Kosovo is currently an associate of the EU, but with aspirations to membership.

Ambassador Citaku: Of course. The European Union has published its enlargement platform, and all the western Balkan countries are included, and this was a very positive sign from Brussels. We in the western Balkans have a lot of unfinished business between us, but if there’s one common desire throughout the region it’s the strong desire to join the European Union. Especially now that we see our part of the world has become a chess board between different competing powers. Russia is as aggressive and as present as it has ever been, and Russia has become a very destructive force. So it’s very important to see a clear signal from Brussels.

Diplomatic Connections: But it’s not just the European Union. Kosovo also has American backing.

Ambassador Citaku: We are the most pro-American country on earth. I think Kosovo is the only country in the world where there’s a Bill Clinton statue next to a George W. Bush boulevard and that is a clear sign of the appreciation and gratitude we have for the United States. The pro-American sentiment is not only a geo-political orientation, it’s a sentiment in the heart and mind of every Kosovar.

Diplomatic Connections: To pick up on your career. After laying the groundwork for Kosovo’s eventual entry into the European Union, you were consul general in New York, and then you came to Washington as ambassador. What do you hope to achieve during your time in D.C.?

Ambassador Citaku: First of all, I hope to have preserved the special nature of the relationship between the United States and Kosovo. My first priority when I came here was to try and remind the administration that Kosovo is their unfinished business. We’re still not a U.N. member, we still have not concluded our state infrastructure, and this is not something we can do alone. This is not something Brussels can do alone with us either. As we know, the course of history in our part of the world can take a very dangerous turn. At a time of competing priorities, from North Korea to Iran – of course, I’m grateful that Kosovo is not a hot spot any more, but it’s still unfinished business, and if not taken care of properly the record in the western Balkans shows that progress is easily reversible. Especially now when we see a very aggressive Russia. And we’re all inter-dependent: instability in one country can lead to instability in Kosovo as well. I had to try and capture the attention of the administration to say that, although peaceful, our part of the world was still unfinished. And I must say that, together with my colleagues from neighboring countries we have managed to bring Kosovo and the western Balkans to the attention of the State Department.

Diplomatic Connections: And in addition to that?

Ambassador Citaku: Secondly, for me, it’s very important that we establish the armed forces. We celebrated the tenth anniversary of our independence, but we don’t have an army. That’s because the required constitutional change in our statute is blocked in parliament by the Serbian minority.

Diplomatic Connections: So what happens? Whenever legislation comes up to establish the army the Serbians vote against it?

Ambassador Citaku: They don’t vote.

Diplomatic Connections: And to amend the constitution you need a two-thirds majority?

Ambassador Citaku: We need more than that. We need the Albanian vote and the vote of the other minorities. The Serbians in the Kosovo parliament don’t vote because that’s what they are instructed to do by Belgrade. The time has come for us to be more creative and look at other ways in which we can establish our armed forces. It’s a fundamental right of Kosovars. The time has come for Kosovo to contribute to our security.

Diplomatic Connections: You’re not members of NATO?

Ambassador Citaku: No, we’re not. You can’t be members of NATO without an army. It doesn’t have to be a big army: it can be a small force, specialized in certain fields.

Diplomatic Connections: Can I just go over some of the basic information. There is still a NATO presence in Kosovo.

Ambassador Citaku: Yes there is. It’s small. Kosovo is now peaceful. Their main purpose is to protect Kosovo from any possible incursion.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there a time-frame around the NATO presence in Kosovo.

Ambassador Citaku: No, there isn’t. but I think NATO should continue to be present, not for peacekeeping but for geo-strategic balance. Russia is building a base in southern Serbia. They call it a humanitarian response base, but then why are they asking for diplomatic immunity for its personnel? So we all know what it is. I believe it’s in the interest of the Atlantic Alliance to preserve a presence in the western Balkans, and they’re already in Kosovo.

Diplomatic Connections: Your parliament has one chamber?

Ambassador Citaku: Yes. One chamber. Twenty seats in the 120-member parliament are reserved for non-Albanian minorities. Over 90 percent of the population is Albanian. However, there are Romas, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Serbs. But as we were laying down the new constitution we made sure the minorities were represented. Ten seats are for Serbs, and ten for other minorities. By constitution, Serbs also have to be represented in the government.

Diplomatic Connections: As far as the army is concerned, there must be a lot of people with combat experience from the recent conflict. Is there at least a militia of some sort?

Ambassador Citaku: What we have is a security force. But their mandate is emergency response. They have been trained by NATO. What we need to do is to transform them to an army, and this is where we’ve been stuck for
a decade.

Diplomatic Connections: In fact this year you are celebrating Kosovo’s tenth anniversary. You have a constitution, you’re building a nation, but in terms of Kosovo’s position in the international community what have you achieved?

Ambassador Citaku: Well, a lot. Unfortunately, we’re not where we would like to be. If someone would have told me in 2008 that ten years later we would still not be a member of the U.N., I would have been shocked. But here we are. On the other hand, Kosovo has been recognized by the overwhelming majority of nations of the world, and we are members of international organizations. Nonetheless because of the Russian veto Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations. A lot has been accomplished, but a lot needs to be done. These are not things that Kosovo will be able to accomplish alone – no matter what we do.

Diplomatic Connections: Russia doesn’t recognize Kosovo and nor does Serbia, but there are some other holdouts.

Ambassador Citaku: Yes, there are five EU countries that have not recognized Kosovo, but I need to say that this is not an anti-Kosovo bloc. They all have their reasons, and none of them has opposed Kosovo’s European aspirations. They were there when the EU enlargement strategy was adopted, and none of them objected to Kosovo being included. When Kosovo declared its independence the Serbian government filed a challenge with the International Court of Justice, and the ruling of the court was as clear, as unambiguous as it could be. It clearly stated that Kosovo was within its rights in declaring its independence.

Diplomatic Connections: Why would Cyprus object to recognizing Kosovo?

Ambassador Citaku: They still have their unresolved situation, and I guess this is the reason.

Diplomatic Connections: Because if Cyprus recognizes Kosovo that weakens the case for not recognizing the island’s Turkish enclave [Cyprus was partitioned in 1974, with the Turkish Cypriots establishing an enclave in the northern part of the island, under mainland Turkey’s protection].

Ambassador Citaku: But there’s no analogy whatsoever. The same with Spain and the dispute over Catalonian independence. Kosovo is not a product of a secessionist movement; our independence is the product of the conceptual dissolution of Yugoslavia. Kosovo had borders long before it declared independence. In international relations things don’t always go as planned, but the undeniable truth is that Kosovo’s independence has brought more peace and stability to the region. Although we disagree with Belgrade and we have a lot of open issues, we meet regularly in Brussels and we have established dialogue as a tool to settle the remaining differences. Our respective presidents met recently in Brussels and we hope that very soon there will be – as the European Union has requested – a legally binding agreement of mutual recognition; and that would lead to full normalization of the situation, not only between Kosovo and Serbia, but will reflect positively throughout the region.

Diplomatic Connections: Isn’t such an internationally recognized agreement a precondition to your further advancement, and that of the Serbians, towards EU membership?

Ambassador Citaku: Yes, so it is in our mutual interest to find a peace solution, and ultimately it is in our interest regardless of the EU. We are neighbors. We will be living next to each other for the rest of history. We are there, and they will be there. So the sooner we close this dark chapter of the past, the better it will be. The day before yesterday marked the 19th anniversary of NATO’s intervention in former Yugoslavia. Every day we are reminded of the atrocities, of the crimes. One million people were deported from Kosovo, that’s over half the population. I was among those who were deported, and I consider myself lucky because I was not harmed, my parents survived, my sister survived and I made it back home. But this is not the experience of 20,000 women that were raped, thousands of children that were killed, and many more who lost everything they had. So a very steep price was paid for our freedom, and we are going to be forever thankful and grateful to the United States and other NATO allies who stepped in, who acted, and who decided to tell (Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic enough is enough.

Diplomatic Connections: There is now a generation growing up in Kosovo that didn’t experience any of this, true?

Ambassador Citaku: Well, a baby that was born after the war would be 19.

Diplomatic Connections: So you have a rising generation that looks towards Europe, and to whom this is history…

Ambassador Citaku: Yes, and this is how it should be. We have all been directly affected by the war, but young generations of Kosovars, they just want to excel, they want to move on, they want to build a better life. I’m happy that they don’t have to make the choices that I had to make. They can dream on, and have full control of their life, without having someone knock on their door and tell them, “You have five minutes to leave.”

Diplomatic Connections: What percentage of the population is Muslim?

Ambassador Citaku: Kosovo is a secular republic, though the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, but we also have a Roman Catholic community and an Orthodox community. What we’re very proud of as a young democracy is our inter-religious harmony, not only tolerance, harmony. In Kosovo we never identified ourselves by religion; we always identified ourselves by our ethnicity. That is what defined us. And my American friends are surprised when I tell them that our national icon is Mother Teresa – she’s from Kosovo.

Diplomatic Connections: Has Islamic fundamentalism been a problem in the Islamic community?

Ambassador Citaku: Of course, Kosovo was infected by the global radicalization, but the majority of Kosovar Muslims are against radicalization. Many devout Muslims have stood up and fought against radical elements within their mosques. It was a problem at one point, but there was a swift response, not only from the institutions, but also from the community.

Diplomatic Connections: How long ago?

Ambassador Citaku: Three, four years ago.

Diplomatic Connections: With young people going -

Ambassador Citaku: To Syria, yes. There was a point, four, five years ago, when we had young Kosovars completely brainwashed, and going to Syria (to join ISIS), but the trend has stopped.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize Kosovo’s relationship with Albania? Do Kosovars regard Albania as the source of their culture and ethnic roots?

Ambassador Citaku: First of all, we don’t come from Albania. Albanians live there, but we live in our land. Of course, we have a very special bond, and a very, very special relationship with Albania, but what unites us now is not only the shared language, culture, and history: what unites us now is our common aspiration to join the European Union.

Diplomatic Connections: Does Kosovo have a program or an institution for dealing with its immediate past?

Ambassador Citaku: I must say it took us a very long time to sit and reflect on what has happened because once free and independent we were caught between competing priorities. The country was completely devastated. We had roads to build, schools to construct, laws to adopt, and we never had time to reflect on what had happened. It was just last year that the president established a commission for truth and reconciliation. We introduced the appropriate legislation to give pensions to the survivors of sexual violence. For almost twenty years these women were completely neglected, and what is more, they were stigmatized. We did nothing to help them, to support them. I am happy that now there are platforms to help them.

Diplomatic Connections: What about bringing the perpetrators to justice?

Ambassador Citaku: I have spoken to so many victims of violence, not just sexual, but other crimes as well. I spoke to one woman who lost her husband and four children during the war, and what she wants is not only justice, but probably as much, she wants an apology. This is what these platforms are doing.

Diplomatic Connections: So are we talking about having aggressors meet their victims face-to-face?

Ambassador Citaku: We’re still not there. At this point the victims share their stories, and –

Diplomatic Connections: As for the aggressors, what is the situation regarding the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in the Hague?

Ambassador Citaku: I’m disappointed with the way the International Tribunal in the Hague has concluded its work. They’ve been very slow to convict the perpetrators. Also because somehow the court tried to impose a moral parity between all the parties, and that’s not how you get reconciliation and justice. What I would love to see, though, is local courts in Belgrade and Kosovo do more to punish the perpetrators of the crimes committed in the war. When someone writes the history of the International Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia, it will not be a good one.

Diplomatic Connections: On the Kosovo side, what has happened with the members of the Kosovo Liberation Army? There are grey areas concerning some of them, and the KLA is now in the government.

Ambassador Citaku: The KLA was disbanded at the end of the war. Some of them formed political parties. The ICTY has concluded its work as far as Kosovo is concerned and, as I said, there was not enough justice, and unfortunately there were not enough people actually brought to court. And the main perpetrator, Slobodan Milosevic died in prison without being found guilty. The trial was taking too long. The trial became a charade. Somehow, procedurally he managed to delay the process, and died in his cell without being convicted, which is disappointing not only for me but for everybody who was affected by his criminal action, be it in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, or elsewhere.

Diplomatic Connections: As a female ambassador what are the challenges that you find in Washington?

Ambassador Citaku: For a diplomat, Washington is the place to be – especially if you’re from Kosovo. Of course, being the ambassador of a small country is challenging. You have five minutes to make your case, because after those five minutes, there’s a crisis somewhere else and the attention is no longer on you. Nevertheless, I must say that because of the nature of the relationship between Kosovo and the U.S., this has been one of the most fulfilling periods of my career. Also, there are around twenty women ambassadors and we work very well together. Although we are from very different parts of the world we share contacts and information, we coordinate. Being a woman in politics is more problematic than being a woman in diplomacy. In politics it’s a different battlefield.

Diplomatic Connections: Do Balkan ambassadors meet regularly as a group?

Ambassador Citaku: It’s very interesting. For example, when we go to receptions, somehow we always find one another. But we also meet very frequently. It’s not only about sitting around the same table, it’s also about doing things together.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador Citaku, thank you very much for this conversation.

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