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On 17 February 2008, as the citizens of the newly declared Republic of Kosovo were distracted by Beethoven and fireworks, the country’s new president and prime minister drafted a letter to each of the UN member states announcing their state’s independence and requesting diplomatic relations. In the days that followed, regional allies Turkey and Albania obliged, followed by NATO leaders the US, UK, France, and Germany, who led the 1999 war to free Kosovo from Serbia.

Yet now, as Kosovo celebrates its second birthday, it is recognised by less than one-third of the world’s 192 countries, leaving the small Balkan nation in a state of suspended sovereignty. It lacks a seat in the United Nations General Assembly, a path to European Union membership and the right to field a football team in international contests. Kosovo still lacks an internet suffix, and its mobile phones are reached via the country codes of Serbia, Slovenia, and Monaco (the last because of a UN-brokered grant of unused numbers from Monaco Telecom).

In recent years, the elemental task of statecraft has been treated as a formality. The last nation to join the UN, Montenegro, earned its seat without a fight, less than one month after declaring that it would break from Serbia. Kosovo, dismissed by opponents as an ethnic-secessionist movement, has emerged as an international test case for countries fearing their own threats of internal rupture.

Each morning, on the eighth floor of Kosovo’s high-rise federal building, the country’s top diplomats gather to strategise their response. The ministry of foreign affairs still does not have a home of its own, leaving 110 staff split between two offices in Pristina’s concrete-block downtown. None of Kosovo’s 10 ambassadors has ever represented a country abroad. “My ministry is the newborn,” says Skender Hyseni, a 55-year-old former adviser to the late philosopher-politician Ibrahim Rugova, considered the father of Kosovar statehood. The final step on that path has fallen to Hyseni’s fresh-faced foreign service: convincing the world that their country exists.

The daily strategy session, like much of the ministry’s work, focuses on what it calls lobbying: a perpetual campaign to expand the ranks of countries that recognise Kosovo (there were 63 by the end of 2009). UN membership requires a General Assembly vote of two-thirds and unanimity among the five permanent ­Security Council members (Russia and China have expressed opposition). Practically, Kosovo’s diplomats expect that once they have been recognised by 100 nations, they will be ready to push their case for a UN seat, by portraying opponents as obstructionist.

Hyseni breaks down the nearly 130 remaining countries into three categories. About 30 allies of Serbia and Russia, ­including many former Soviet republics, have strongly opposed Kosovo’s independence from the outset. Another 30 countries, fear legitimising their own ­secessionist movements. Spain is wary of inspiring restless Basques and Catalans; China uneasy about strengthening Taiwan’s case; Argentina afraid to jeopardise its claim on the Falklands. Greece and Cyprus worry they would embolden Turks in northern Cyprus.

Kosovo is courting the remaining uncommitted countries – many small African and South American nations unlikely to ever trade a single euro with Kosovo or once stamp its passports – with persistence and patience. New Zealand initially demanded a visit from a Kosovo delegation but acquiesced when Pristina offered to give its ambassador in London a Wellington portfolio. Panama sent word in late 2008 that it would not move while holding a politically delicate seat on the UN Security Council. Two weeks after its term ended, it sent official recognition.

The task of winning over indifferent nations falls largely to Kosovo’s ambassadorial corps abroad. Its ambassador to the US, Avni Spahiu, a former public broadcasting director, is diligently travelling Washington’s embassy ­circuit introducing himself and arguing for sovereignty. “Countries try to send their best diplomats here, who have influence on their foreign policies,” Spahiu says. He can claim credit for one victory: last summer, Kosovo was voted into both the IMF and World Bank. “Some countries considered this as not quite political, perhaps, and they were more flexible.”

Kosovo’s opponents, however, have opened up a new front. In December, 13 countries backed a Serbian legal challenge to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which Serbian diplomat Dusan Batakovic told the International Court of Justice had struck “at the foundation of international legal order”. Both Kosovo and Serbia hope that the court’s non-binding judgment, likely to be made this spring, will influence the position of uncommitted countries. (Serbia previously withdrew its ambassadors from nations that recognised Kosovo, and at one point threatened to sue them all.)

While Kosovo makes a narrow case for independence, Serbia is working to elevate the matter into a geostrategic realm. It attacks Kosovo as a US satellite state, propped up by NATO, and has tried to win over ambivalents by reconvening the Non-Aligned Movement of neutrals, first organised by Yugoslavia in the 1950s. Moscow has reinforced Cold War logic, arguing Kosovo’s push for sovereignty justified Russia’s 2008 war over the Georgian republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In court and in embassy meeting rooms, Kosovo argues that its case offers no parallels: theirs was not a breakaway republic, but part of a country, Yugo­slavia, that no longer exists. Kosovo’s diplomats are happy to describe themselves as lobbyists, not freedom fighters, whose struggle should offer no inspiration to minorities encouraged to believe that they, too, should govern themselves.

“We have no intention to become a precedent to other countries,” says Venera Llunji, a political adviser to Hyseni. “We are a sui generis case.”

Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith is the most powerful man in Kosovo, but of two minds on its sovereignty. He has a mandate from the International Steering Group, comprising 25 recognising countries that oversee the status settlement that underpins Kosovo’s independence. At the same time, he is special representative for the EU, which is mounting its largest-ever foreign mission of 3,000 EULEX judges, lawyers and gendarmes but cannot acknowledge sovereignty ­because five member states refuse.

As International Civilian Representative, Feith and his spokesman Andy McGuffie talk about Kosovo’s citizens and government, but in their EU posts refer to “Kosovo institutions and the people who live there,” for fear of implying statehood. “I speak differently, but I am not in contradiction with myself,” says Feith.

For a country unable to field its own football team – UEFA will accept only UN members and FIFA requires a team to be accredited by UEFA – international acceptance has emerged as a national pastime. Two expat Kosovars in Geneva and Phoenix run the website Kosovo Thanks You, putting those words in the native ­languages of 63 recognising nations. Pristina’s Hotel Afa offers a 20 per cent discount to guests from those countries.

The country's most famous businessman, Beghjet Pacolli, has financed his own lobbying tours of Africa and Latin America, raising the profile of his New Kosovo Alliance opposition party. In March, the Maldives government opened an investigation into charges that Pacolli had bribed local officials. The investigation was later dropped. Albin Kurti, leader of the Vetëvendosje! (“self-determination”) movement, calls the chase for acceptance a “spectacle” designed to distract from state corruption and poor public services and economic development. “We need to work on existing recognition, not increase the number,” Kurti says. “Palestine has been recognised by most of the world, but I don't want to be Palestine.”

Last autumn, the finance ministry ­retained the Tel Aviv office of Saatchi & Saatchi for a €5m nation-branding contract, 50 times more expensive than any previous advertising campaign developed in Kosovo. The results, visible on international cable-news networks and a staggering number of Pristina billboards, carry the tagline “Kosovo: The Young Europeans” (officials say the average age is 37). The typeface is inexplicably trippy, but the message is simple: Kosovo is in Europe, its population is young, and there’s nothing tragic about it anymore.

That image of cheerful moderns that Kosovo blares on the airwaves in the ­interest of drawing tourism and foreign investment is a little different from the one discreetly clattering through diplomatic cables. Diplomats acknowledge that portraying themselves as feisty anti-imperialists helps when appealing to the proudly post-colonial nations of Africa, Latin America and southeast Asia.

They realise that religious solidarity has helped to unlock undecided countries from the Islamic world, but the Saatchi campaign gives no hint of Kosovo’s ethnic heritage. “Kosovars have so much stigma,” laments Jeta Xharra, host of the political talk show Life in Kosovo. “We’re afraid we’ll be labelled a Muslim country.”

The focus of the Saatchi campaign suggests Kosovo has reached an ­inevitable dilemma in its infancy: can it successfully brand itself for business without shortchanging its diplomatic priorities? “Why do we want to advertise on CNN when most of the viewers are from countries that have already recognised?” asks Fisnik Ismaili, creative director of Ogilvy Kosova. “Our first and foremost problem is recognition.”

Kosovo’s embassy push

Kosovo is opening a second round of embassies, with a plan to reach 18 worldwide this year. Under a tight budget, foreign ministry officials are discussing the prospect of sharing facilities with Albanian diplomats, using the five-country Nordic joint-embassy structure as a model. For now, however, ambassadors in Washington, London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin are being encouraged to hunt for property bargains that could house Kosovo’s diplomatic presence. “We are trying to use this time, because the real estate market is going to stabilise,” says Lulzim Mjeku, general director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The five newest UN members

Declared sovereignty:
3 June, 2006
Accepted by the UN:
28 June, 2006

Declared sovereignty:
20 May, 2002
Accepted by the UN:
27 September, 2002

Declared sovereignty:
1 August, 1291
Accepted by the UN:
10 September, 2002

Declared sovereignty:
11 April, 1992 (as Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)
Accepted by the UN:
1 November, 2000

Declared sovereignty:
1 October, 1978
Accepted by the UN:
5 September, 2000







  • The Continental Shift