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[] Pollywood: Kosovo Looks Ahead

New ambassador seeks to put fresh face on nation in U.S.

By Sarah Valerio

Plagued by a history of wars and genocide, Kosovo, through the work ofits newly appointed ambassador, is seeking to shed the past and put afresh face on the newly independent nation.

“I got the offer to do public service as an ambassador and I was honoredand privileged to accept,” said Akan Ismaili, a warm, friendly man,with an inviting smile, the type of visage one would imagine a newnation would want to present when introducing itself to the rest of theworld.

If you haven’t read about Kosovo in the headlines lately, it could bebecause the Olympics, from which Kosovo is notably absent, are currentlydominating news coverage. If you searched for Kosovo in the Parade ofNations, you wouldn’t have found it. The International Olympic Committee(IOC) has refused to allow Kosovo or its athletes to participate in theGames of the XXX Olympiad. The IOC will likely require Kosovo to firstbe recognized as an independent nation by the United Nations (UN) beforeconsidering it eligible.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation we are facing. We have a very skilledyoung lady who couldn’t compete under the Kosovo flag. We worked veryhard right up until the end to make it possible, but it was not,” saidIsmaili. He was speaking about Majlinda Kelmendi, a judo competitor whowon the 2009 Gold Medal at the World Junior Championships.

Kelmendi was, however, eventually allowed to compete in the 2012 LondonOlympic Games, but had to do so under the Albanian flag. She waseliminated and did not medal.

“I watched her compete. It was a very good day for all of us,” Ismailisaid. “If she could have competed under the Kosovo flag that would havebeen very special and we’re looking forward to a day when she can dothat.”

With Ismaili at the helm in the United States, Kosovo hopes to finditself in friendlier territory, not just in terms of internationalsporting events like the Olympics, but on all fronts.

Ismaili on May 2 officially presented his credentials to PresidentBarack Obama as the Ambassador of Kosovo to the United States. The38-year-old is Kosovo’s second ambassador to the U.S., following hispredecessor, Avni Spahiu. “It was a great feeling to be in the WhiteHouse, such a historic building. The whole thing was just amazing,” saidIsmaili of the credentialing ceremony.

He laughed as he relayed the story of his 6-year-old son, Lir, who wasnervous to meet the President. “He asked me ‘What do I say to him?’ and Isaid, ‘Say I’m honored to meet you Mr. President.’” When Lir’s turncame to be introduced to President Obama as the first family met theIsmaili’s, Lir shouted at him, “I’m honored to meet you Mr. President!”

“The President has an easy way with kids,” added Ismaili. “[Lir] was very happy he got his Presidential M&Ms.”

Every bit the proud father, he beamed as he told me that his son speaksand understands English. He and his 34-year-old wife Fitore along withLir and the couple’s 3-year-old daughter Ame spend their free time onthe weekends exploring the museums, zoo and sites around D.C. “Everyweekend we have a project,” Ismaili said, adding that the manyadventures to be had around town and how green the city is are what helikes best about Washington.

He also raved about the city’s food selection. “I love the variety offood.” His favorite place to eat in D.C.? “BLT Steakhouse. It’s veryhigh quality.” But his favorite food selection? “Japanese. I could eattuna for breakfast if you ask me. I love sushi.”

Day to day, as ambassador, Ismaili finds himself “in a lot of meetings.We work with the White House, think tanks and potential businesses whowould want to invest. My job is about building and maintainingrelationships. It doesn’t get any more important than being in the U.S.The U.S. is the most valuable friendship we want to maintain andnurture.”

Ismaili said what he misses most about home is, “the long mid-daybreaks. It’s a cultural thing. People have more interaction with eachother. Lunch was at least an hour and a half. Morning coffee was a timewith people. Here most communication is done on the phone or online.”

The Kosovo about which he reminisces is not one which first springs intothe minds of many Americans. Kosovo made headlines last summer forviolent border clashes that occurred when Kosovo police crossed into theSerb-controlled territories of northern Kosovo.

“We have an unresolved situation in the north,” said Ismaili. “There is a common understanding this cannot continue forever.”

While most of Kosovo is dominated by a heavy Albanian population, partsof northern Kosovo maintain a sort of de facto independent autonomy dueto a heavily concentrated Serb population.

“In the north the influences of the Serbian government have created aparallel structure. [The border clashes] were our attempt to control ourborders. Right now in the north they’re open and being used for taxevasion and imports to the black market,” said Ismaili.

Kosovo is currently working with the European Union (EU) to find asolution for the northern border. The country also seeks EU, NATO and UNmembership — a process that is being held up on all counts primarily bycountries such as Russia and Serbia that do not recognize Kosovo as anindependent nation.

Membership to these organizations is of, “highest priority for ourgovernment and our people,” said Ismaili. “Euro-Atlantic integration iscrucial and it has done miracles for countries of the region.”

For membership to NATO, Kosovo will also have to develop a standingarmy. Currently, its armed forces are the Kosovo Force (K Force), aNATO-led international peacekeeping force.

NATO and the EU also demand member nations resolve and normalizerelationships with neighboring countries. The current tension betweenKosovo and Serbia jeopardizes this.

The U.S. faces its own problems as well, and in the midst of an economicslump, many are calling for foreign divestment and slashes to foreignaid which could affect nations like Kosovo. “Divesting at this pointwould be losing your entire investment,” said Ismaili, citing theimportance both to Kosovo and the U.S. of a continued relationship. “Somuch has been accomplished by U.S. investments in the region and leavingnow is throwing everything away which would be a wrong decision.”

Ismaili cautioned against over-emphasis of the religious component ofKosovo by the media. “We have a Muslim history but we’re really Islamlight. The people are very modern and pro-European and pro-Western.”

If there is one thing Ismaili could tell Americans about Kosovo, it isabout “the energy. The population is very young and energetic. You feelthat from the moment you land. You’d be surprised how pro-American thecountry is and how grateful for American support.”