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A Conversation with Ambassador Akan Ismaili

Written by Steve Lutes, Contributor | 19 October 2012

On May 2, 2012, Akan Ismaili met with President Barack Obama and formally presented his credentials as the Ambassador of Kosovo to the United States, becoming only the second top envoy to America from the young Balkan nation. While an incredible honor and a significant responsibility, it is the sort of undertaking one can easily envision for the Kosovar credited with bringing the internet to a people more used to surviving the savagery of war than surfing the net.

Shortly after the NATO bombing concluded in 1999, Ismaili co-founded a non-profit organization, Internet Project Kosovo (IPKO), which is widely recognized as responsible for bringing the internet to Kosovo. That this enterprise was launched from the ashes of the war underscores an exuberant, entrepreneurial determination on Ismaili’s part that is in harmony with the energetic, optimistic outlook of Europe’s youngest nation, Kosovo.

While Ismaili recalls the 1990s as a very tough time in which it seemed as if “life had been put on pause,” he considers 1999 one of the best times of his life. “We had no heating, electricity was intermittent, and there was a water shortage, but there was so much goodwill and positive energy.” And it was at that time that he seized the chance to bring what had only once been a dream and transform it into a reality by essentially plugging Kosovo into the outside world and by doing so transforming it.

As a former CEO, Kosovo’s new Ambassador is drawing on his skills and experiences learned in the business world to “expand the relationship that a young country like Kosovo has with the United States and all the stakeholders here.” This approach starts at the Embassy where he notes the difference between life in the private and public sectors by joking, “We go from ‘go get it’ to follow procedure and wait.”

But in all seriousness, Ambassador Ismaili says "getting things done" has been his approach to life, and this is an attitude he is working to instill in Kosovo’s mission in DC through teamwork and a task-oriented approach that he believes will enable them to achieve the goals set forth for Kosovo’s diplomatic team in the U.S., a country the Ambassador refers to as “one of the most important foreign partners we have.”

According to Ambassador Ismaili, they have quite a robust agenda that starts first and foremost with “wider recognition worldwide.” This is an understandable objective for a nation that declared its independence in February 2008, an independence that while welcomed by the United States and a majority of nations in Europe has not been fully embraced around the globe, particularly by neighboring Serbia.

Kosovo’s top diplomat is quick to point out that the recognition they seek is not just by individual countries, but also involves integration into international organizations. While membership in the United Nations is a key goal for Kosovo, Ismaili relays that “no less important is to get into NATO and to join the European Union as fast as possible” and he sees this pursuit as a “means to transform Kosovo from the inside out.”

When it comes to their agenda, the Ambassador recognizes Washington, DC as a hub of foreign affairs engaged in many issues and challenges, and as a small nation of 2 million people it is necessary to “fight above our size and fight to keep our agenda alive.” Ambassador Ismaili alluded that one thing Kosovo has working in its favor is the fact that, “Kosovo is, and I believe will continue to be, described as one of the most pro-American countries in the world.”

This strong pro-American attitude is based on a “great appreciation for everything the United States has done, including preventing the further genocide and misery of our people,” continued Ismaili. “This support has come from across the political spectrum; both Democrats and Republicans were together on resolving the issues in Kosovo and in supporting our independence.” He pointed out that, “The intervention happened under Clinton and our independence under Bush.”

While the Balkans have a long and turbulent history, Ambassador Ismaili believes that when considering the progress Kosovo has made since independence “there’s a great story there.” He offered, “We know our history, but we’re taking every step possible not to repeat it. The whole concept of ‘people being free’ is something we cherish. Individual freedom is what we aspire for all citizens of Kosovo.”

Kosovo’s population is more than 90 percent Albanian and includes a small but important Serbian population as well. The Ambassador noted that Kosovo has built a legal infrastructure to give all citizens a sense of security and therefore optimism about their future. He candidly observed that they are not satisfied with the situation in the north area of Kosovo, which is greatly influenced by the Serbian government. “We are open for dialogue with the Serbian community to work to address their issues and their needs but that’s different from accommodating Serbian (government) involvement in Kosovo,” remarked Ambassador Ismaili.

In coming full circle back to technology, Ambassador Ismaili embraces the impact social media is having on the diplomatic community and foreign relations noting, “It kills secrets. There is more transparency in the decision-making processes which is being redistributed to the general public.”

With 65 percent of its population under the age of 30 and a tech savvy diplomat at the helm, it is no surprise that Ambassador Ismaili has already fashioned a digital diplomacy strategy during his brief time in his new post. “You’re going to see much more of us in the social media. We’re going to start tweeting,” promised the Ambassador. “There is much more to come…lots of great things are coming.”

While this remark was clearly in reference to the impact future technologies will have, it is hard not to extrapolate the ‘great things to come’ sentiment to the anticipated work and achievements of Kosovo’s young and dynamic Ambassador.

Photo by Steve Lutes.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.