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Kosova! Why America and Why Now?

I was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1984 and began serving in January 1985. A few months later, ethnic Albanians from Kosova who lived in my Congressional district, discovered that my father, who emigrated from Italy in 1929, spoke Albanian. (His people, fled the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks into Albania in the fifteenth century and sought asylum in what was then the Kingdom of Naples.) My life has not been the same since.

Hundreds of Albanians from all over the Balkans visited my office in Washington, and some even came to my home in New Rochelle, New York, to tell me about a place that I had never heard of—Kosova (Albanian spelling). I soon found out that hardly anyone in Congress, both the House and Senate, knew about this autonomous province in Yugoslavia—one of the eight juridical units in the Yugoslav confederation, with an equal vote to Serbia in the confederal presidency. But, there was one exception, a Member of Congress who knew Kosova and the Albanian people well—a Jewish American who was born in Hungry and had escaped the Holocaust as a teenager. That was Tom Lantos, the cofounder and chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, who had demonstrated a keen interest in helping all oppressed people.

Our first Congressional Resolution for the human rights of the long suffering Albanians of Kosova was introduced in June 1986. Our second was introduced with fifty-seven cosponsors in the new Congress in 1987, and the first Congressional hearing was held in October 1987. Kosova was now on the Congressional map of emerging issues on Capitol Hill—just as then Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was assuming power in Belgrade and began to brutally repress the almost 2 million Albanian people of Kosova, leading to an even more brutal military occupation of the province by the Serbian army in March 1989.

There were several major foreign policy failures right at the outset of the first Bush Administration, starting with Secretary of State James Baker, who misread Milosevic’s intentions and inadvertently gave him the green light to invade Slovenia and Croatia by saying that we (the United States) “did not have a dog in this fight” and that “we had to keep Yugoslavia together at all costs.” Senators Joe Biden and Claiborne Pell held a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at my urging on February 21, 1991, at which I testified. On this occasion, I exposed the Nazi-like tactics and anti-Albanian racism of Milosevic and his predecessors since the end of World War II.

I also said that it was Milosevic’s medieval quest for a greater Serbia that would break up Yugoslavia, not the Albanian people who were merely looking for full Republic status like Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, and Serbia, within Yugoslavia, at that time. It was obvious to me and the Albanian people, even then, that Milosevic and his Serbian Orthodox followers had an incredibly brutal plan to ethnically cleanse Kosova of its 90 percent secular Muslim Albanian population (who had lived in harmony with Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews for generations). And Milosevic’s intentions became obvious to the international community as a whole just before the United States led the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

Well, as history now clearly shows, appeasement did not work with Adolf Hitler, and it did not work with Milosevic. Even after losing Slovenia and Croatia, Milosevic backed the Serbs in Bosnia, led by Bosnian Serb commanders Slatko Mladic and Radovan Karazdic to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of its Muslims. This led to 300,000 deaths of innocent civilians, including 7,000 men and boys in one horrific event at Srbrenica in 1995. While Milosevic was indicted for genocide and brought to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in 2001, Mladic and Karadzic, who were also indicted for genocide, are still on the lam somewhere in Serbia. (So much for the rule of law in Serbia.)

Since the US-led NATO bombing campaign drove out the Serbian army in June 1999, Kosova has been a UN protectorate with very little real economic activity. The UN administration has done little to improve the obsolete and war damaged infrastructure and has even brought corruption to Kosova, highlighted by Joseph Trueschler’s theft of 4.3 million Euros from KEK, the state’s energy arm. Even today, electricity goes on and off every four to six hours. How does one put the youngest population in Europe (50 percent under the age of 25) to work in such bleak circumstances? It was bad enough that Kosova was a dumping ground for Serbia after World War II with little real investment coming from Belgrade. As Congressman Henry Hyde, the late chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, said to Ambassador Nicholas Burns in a full committee hearing in May 2005, “What are we trying to do in Kosova, create another Gaza Strip, this time in the middle of Europe, where this large educated, pro-American, and young population will have precious little to do but throw stones?” I believe that this hearing was the turning point for our failed US foreign policy in the Balkans, because President Bush announced that very day that the United States would now actively press for a final status solution for Kosova—one that would free the long suffering Albanian people from Serbia and the fear of genocide and ethnic cleansing once and for all. Limbo status would no longer be tolerated.

After almost three years, a solution has now come with Kosova declaring its independence and the United States and major European nations having recognized Kosova’s statehood already. Why is this important? Without statehood, Kosova could not borrow from the European Bank for Reconstruction to fix its old and crumbling infrastructure. Only in this way can private investment be attracted and the massive unemployment turned around. Serbia, in the meantime, must face its future as part of an integrated, fully democratic Europe, with Kosova as an equal partner in creating an economic engine in the Balkans, so that Southeast Europe loses the backwater status that it has had since World War II.

And, finally, Kosova’s status had to be solved under the leadership of the United States, much like Woodrow Wilson did in 1921 when he recognized the state of Albania, against the wishes of France, Russia, Britain, and Germany at that time. Europe has always been divided on the Albanian dimension of the Balkans, and if the United States did not lead the way once again, we would be stuck cleaning up another mess, as we did with NATO in 1999. And, yes, resolving Kosova’s status is in the vital interest of the United States, because stability in Europe, our major trading partner and traditional ally, is in our vital interest. By now it is obvious to all reasonable people that peace and stability in the Balkans and in Europe could only come from recognizing Kosova’s statehood. This also corrected an historic injustice, when Kosova was sliced away from Albania and annexed to Yugoslavia in 1921, thereby putting almost two million Albanians in a Slavic state where they were treated as second-class and third-class citizens—until now. Independence will now allow the fiercely pro-American and entrepreneurial Albanians to build an economic future for themselves and contribute to Europe’s success in a global economy, hopefully with Serbia and the rest of the emerging Balkans as partners in a fully integrated Europe.

March 6, 2008

Former Congressman Joe DioGuardi is the founding president of the Albanian American Civic League.

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