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Interview: Akan Ismaili, Ambassador of Kosovo to the United States

It is quite obvious that in today’s world, where the competition among the countries is growing rapidly, the tiny countries receive less attention and a sort of limited space. In light of this, for a small country with limited odds, such as Kosovo, the most effective means to mark our presence worldwide and to strengthening our nation branding is digital diplomacy. That’s one side of the coin.

Ambassador Akan Ismaili started his career as an entrepreneur. Immediately after the NATO bombing ended in 1999, Ambassador Ismaili co-founded Internet Project Kosovo (IPKO), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the use of information and communications technology as a tool to foster rebuilding and development in Kosovo. IPKO has been credited with bringing the internet to Kosovo. In 2001, IPKO split into two entities: IPKOnet and IPKO Institute, and Ambassador Ismaili served as the CEO of IPKOnet, a company that expanded access to broadband, mobile, telephone, and television in Kosovo. Over his 10-year tenure, IPKO became a modern enterprise and is now one of the fastest growing telecommunications companies in Europe and a fundamental pillar of the new economy in Kosovo.

Ever the consummate social entrepreneur, during the same time, Ambassador Ismaili co-founded the American University Foundation in Kosovo, which draws support from Kosovar citizens and its diaspora to establish an American-style higher education institution in Kosovo. To date, the foundation has raised more than $8 million dollars, which it has used for numerous programs in conjunction with New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology.

Prior to the war, Ambassador Ismaili managed IT infrastructure for the American diplomatic office in Pristina. When the war started in Kosovo and the U.S. became involved in diplomatic negotiations, Ambassador Ismaili served as a translator for U.S. diplomats. Just before the NATO bombing campaign began, he was evacuated to Vienna, where he led a team of four people tasked with translating and distributing U.S. government news articles to the Albanian-language media in the region and at refugee camps.

Ambassador Ismaili recently sat down with Diplomatic Courier’s Editor-in-Chief, Ana Rold to discuss the intersection of technology and diplomacy and the future of Kosovo.


[Diplomatic Courier:] Kosovo has earned a reputation for setting a precedent in the use of social media and digital diplomacy. How do you define digital diplomacy for your country? How did it become such a prominent feature of Kosovo’s foreign policy?

[Akan Ismaili:] It is quite obvious that in today’s world, where the competition among the countries is growing rapidly, the tiny countries receive less attention and a sort of limited space. In light of this, for a small country with limited odds, such as Kosovo, the most effective means to mark our presence worldwide and to strengthening our nation branding is digital diplomacy. That’s one side of the coin. The other side was to use social media tools in order to get your message across; to be much more present. As a matter of fact, the online presence sometimes matters as much as the physical presence, maybe even more. Technology gives us tools available to enhance traditional diplomacy, to make it easier, make it more affordable, and be more efficient and effective.

[DC:] When it comes to public diplomacy, what has changed about the toolbox?

[AI:] There is no doubt that changes are visible. We are now much more effective and efficient. Every day you find a new use and more creative use for the tools just because they are not as limited as in the traditional sense. The other thing that has changed is timing. Timing is everything. You have to be there at the debate when it happens, while it’s happening, otherwise you are too late, everybody moves on much faster than in the traditional sense of diplomacy.

[DC:] What are the dangers of that; moving that fast in real time?

[AI:] Sometimes you get a feeling that it’s very superficial, like you don’t go deep enough into the issue. But that’s why this is not the only way you do diplomacy. That’s why you continue with the other tools available to conduct diplomacy. So, it’s not just moving with a crowd, but you also have people who stay behind and continue that work on the lower levels and lower layers.

[DC:] When we’re looking at the future of diplomacy, some commentators out there are saying that face-to-face diplomacy is sort of dying.

[AI:] I disagree with that. I think that’s still an important element. I don’t think that Twitter and Facebook replace diplomacy. I believe we have a new tool set and it’s more of a tool set of communicating with the public than replacing the traditional way of communication between the countries, because I don’t think Twitter can replace six hours of negotiations when you need a treaty. You cannot do that over Facebook; it’s impossible to do that over Twitter. You still have to have experts sitting around the table and nailing down details. What this does is to uncover the wider opinion and the important elements of what’s actually taking place in real time; exposes it a little bit more and makes it more transparent. And this is where I think public pressure comes into play because people know in real time what’s going on and why things are happening. That’s why it’s becoming harder and harder for people to keep closed societies because these tools are there. If government controls media, they cannot control Twitter, they cannot control an individual tweeting or sending information from a Twitter. Everything is becoming more transparent and more open because the technology is available to everybody.

Some would argue the opposite of that. They would say that this democratization of media and social media has actually steered publics toward certain ideas. Do you feel that there’s a danger of that?

[AI:] There is always fear that somebody is publishing something dangerous and will poison everybody. You know, there is no poison online, there is no information poison. I don’t think that preventing people from speaking, or preventing a certain group from speaking will resolve anything. I think, at the end of the day, it’s us who decide what do we trust and who do we believe and who do we follow. But that has to do more with level of the education in the country, the level of social development in that country more than anything else.

[DC:] Kosovo has done very well when it comes to social media. Tell me how you measure that success.

[AI:] The success can be measured by how much debate there is online. What’s happening with media online; what’s happening with open data. But it’s time for us to measure not just online presence on an individual basis, but how much we are online institutionally and socially. I would say there is still a lot of work to do; we are lagging behind in that aspect. It’s one thing to get individuals online and build a presence, but it’s where we are with schools, where we are with other institutions, and open data. These things do matter for further advancing our online presence. We want to see where our people move online, for business, for banking, for much more than what they do currently.

[DC:] You mean, services.

[AI:] Services. There is more work that needs to be done in that aspect, but I’m surprised to see what’s going on. I’ll give you an example of media in Kosovo. Ninety percent of readership is online while print media was losing ground—I think the circulation was at 25,000 per day. On the other hand, we have a single web portal with over 16 million hits per month. This number is average of over half of million hits per day. And this portal is not just an outlier; rather there are a number of web portals—online arms of traditional print media that are growing and strengthening.

[DC:] What you think contributed to that. Was it access to internet?

[AI:] There are a couple of reasons of why it happened in Kosovo. First, we missed the internet revolution in the 90s; we were not part of that. And we had that feeling of big isolation in the 90s and then we were reading about internet happening, but we were not part of it. After the war, there was this growing fascination with it, people wanted access. And then because of our young and still-very-connected-with-home diaspora, this became a communication tool, kind of a cheap communication tool alternative to few Euro per minute phone calls, international phone calls to Germany, Switzerland, and abroad. Internet started becoming a cheap alternative to that. It was a funny sight of old women going to internet cafes in Kosovo who were actually using it for video chat to see their nieces and nephews living abroad. And those are the sights of Pristina; what I remember in 2000 and 2001 in an internet cafe in a remote area, which helped grow the fascination with internet as a communication tool at first.

The second layer was young people using internet to break the barrier of isolation. there are very few countries that you can travel without a visa, but in 1999, 2000, and immediately in the first years after the war, travel was expensive and it was very tough to get a visa—there were maybe three countries we could travel without a visa. The internet became a mean of understanding what’s actually happening in the world, a tool for us to be part of the world and be part of the trends. That’s how people started using it and it was very attractive.

Accessibility played a big role; that sector developed very nicely; it attracted more investment than any other sector. But it was also because of demand that investment came.

[DC:] I know the story, but tell me, for our readers, how you brought internet to Kosovo.

[AI:] It was in 1999. There were two Americans who were working for not-for-profits and they saw a satellite dish sitting in the refugee camp just outside of the border from Kosovo in Macedonia. And as everybody was leaving the camp because the war was over, they thought it would be a great idea to take that satellite dish, which served an internet cafe in the refugee camp and build an entire internet connectivity for the country behind that satellite dish. So they convinced the donors and the IRC to move that to Kosovo.

We got together and we started talking about this concept of how can we set up an internet service provider in Kosovo. Initially we called it the Robin Hood business model, where we charged international organizations for a connectivity fee (that included UN agencies, diplomatic offices, and international organizations who were operating in Kosovo immediately after the war). And then we used proceeds to give free internet connectivity to local organizations, including schools, hospitals, not-for-profit organizations, and the media for the first few years. And we continued that for a very long time.

This was basic technology; this was a satellite dish. Then we took what is an indoor WiFi, and we just added outdoor antennas to create connectivity in Pristina. So rather than in the room, we would add an outdoor antenna and it could go all the way to 10km, sometimes 15. And that’s how we created that basic connectivity.

Later on we saw that there is a great opportunity for serious investment behind that and then we split the organization into two. We kept the not-for-profit arm but we also started developing and investing in the business. The demand was very high. The next step was dial-up internet connectivity in 2002, and then we continued experimenting with investing in our own infrastructure.

The best thing that happened to us was that Telecom would not give us access to their lines. So the reason I’m saying it’s the best thing that happened to us is because we moved on to build our technology and to rely on our own infrastructure. And we set out this goal of basically bringing to every home in Kosovo bring a cable to 10 to 15 meters form their homes. So we went with a hybrid and a fiber and coax technology, also known as HFC. We would lay out fiber optic cable all over Kosova and in the cities and then because of the high cost of CPE we would drop it to cable for the last 200 homes and then use cable modems and cable access for that. We started this in 2003, and for comparison, when I left the company in 2010 we had over two-thirds of Kosovo connected and who had availability of cable near their home and ready to be connected. And that was not all, we were offering internet connectivity, fixed telephone, and cable TV. In 2007, when we got licensed we also started doing mobile services.

[DC:] And it’s affordable?

[AI:] It’s very affordable and it’s still growing.

[DC:] And you would say that a large majority of Kosovo now is connected?

[AI:] Yes. This is the only sector where Kosovo is comparable or in some areas even better than the region.

[DC:] How has technology helped Kosovo in its bid to become a new nation?

[AI:] I think the story of how the internet helped Kosovo starts during the war. The biggest change in the war is that Serbia had this propaganda machinery and portrayed Kosovo the way they wanted. We had very little international presence. The only work done on behalf of Kosovo was from some of our diaspora members with limited resources and limited know-how. So we were at the mercy of this propaganda machinery. For the first time, it was during the war that we used the internet to show what Serbia was doing in Kosovo; all the atrocities, which I’m sure made a lot of people in Europe and in the United States understand what was at stake, seeing the signs of Bosnia being repeated. I think that was the catalyst to get more serious attention towards Kosovo. We saw this opportunity of the internet being able to level the playing field in our foreign relations.

[DC:] And how is that helping right now with global publics that are reluctant in accepting a new country in Kosovo?

[AI:] If you think of Kosovo from the traditional view; you probably expect a Muslim country with a traditional way of living. Your perception changes in five pictures online or a small video or amateur footage of a concert in Pristina.

One of the efforts in our digital diplomacy was the recent Wiki Academy. We noticed we had very few Wiki entries on Kosovo, aside from a very controversial Kosovo page, which is a big source of fighting and I think has been stopped for now. But we wanted other content online. So we went to the high schools, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with local organizations in Kosovo, and we organized Wikipedia trainings—training kids how to do Wikipedia entries. We called it Wiki Academies and we’ve had them throughout Kosovo. This has produced hundreds of new entries in Wikipedia in Albanian or in English about Kosovo.

Another effort was Instagram. There were not enough Kosovo photos on Instagram; only some from international people who travel to Kosovo and would catch glimpses of what they saw on the way. So we organized a big competition in Kosovo; we said we’re going to select the hundred best photos that portrayed life in Kosovo. We created the hashtag #instakosovo and we went with that. We had, I think 600 to 700 entries in a matter of a couple of days. We selected few photos and we published a book. We don’t have to continue it anymore because it has a life on its own; other people are doing it now. But we have continuously used #Kosovo or #Kosova where streams of photos are coming up. That’s because everybody is there, everybody is on Facebook and on Twitter. Young Kosovars are becoming diplomatic agents in changing the perception about what life in Kosovo is like.

[DC:] I’ve noticed politicians in Kosovo are very prolific on Twitter. They’re very good with social media in general and with their messaging. Is there a unified government blueprint of how to use social media in Kosovo or is this happening organically?

[AI:] This is happening organically. This government—the outgoing government—is the first one that started using online tools much more aggressively. I think we have been online for the last four years, that’s when we started, but the last two years the work has been more intensive. For the first time in local and national elections, Facebook and Twitter were part of the campaigns. Elections were happening as much on Facebook and Twitter, maybe even more, than they were happening in the physical world or in more traditional media. In a big sense replacing print all together. I don’t want to say bypassing, but competing, going neck to neck with the traditional print media. In terms of messaging, social media was competing with TV, which was so far. Every single political party, every single political leader has an official Facebook page, a Twitter account. I think the Prime Minister was sending over 50 tweets a day; or 50 stories a day. It was a very aggressive use of social media.

[DC:] As a new country, Kosovo has been doing well and has been steady. What does the future of Kosovo look like?

[AI:] From the perspective of our foreign policy goals we have three, I would say: working on our international credentials, if I can use that word, meaning becoming a full member of the UN and being an equal player in international forums. That’s one goal. The other two goals are becoming a member of the European Union and becoming a member of NATO. Becoming a UN member is purely political. The integration process is more linked to internal reforms and social and economical and other developments at home and there is a big role for diplomacy in that.

But the first one is pure diplomacy, becoming an equal player in the international scene; covering the world is a big task, it requires a lot of resources, it requires a lot of bodies, it requires a lot of work. And the only way to continue is, first, decentralize and make it open. Make it open so that everybody can help and everybody gets involved and that’s where we see the role for the social media and the online tools. Because rather than having this traditional, centralized issue where all of the work happens at home and with very few information outside of it, we try to use the media and crowdsourcing to promote ourselves.

I think we have this positive momentum happening in the region. Kosovo will depend from the stability of the region. It’s in our own national interest to have stability because that stability will ensure economic development. Right now we are in a situation where Europe is still recovering, but we have to be ready when economic development comes back to Europe and continues to grow, and when investors are ready to come in. And that’s the work that we continue to do these days, that’s why we change the laws, we do reforms, we have to be ready.

The agreement with Serbia provides that positive momentum; it was a small agreement, but the impact was very big. I’ll give you one example. Last elections, the national elections we had a few months ago, for the first time after the war, Serbia was never mentioned as a topic. Neither was the north of Kosovo, and that was the most positive thing that could have happened to us because we have a lot of internal issues that we need to focus on. We need to reform, focus on education, invest in health, invest in social development; we don’t need the Serbian issue clouding our minds and clouding our focus. The agreement provided the clarity and pointed to where our priorities lie.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2015 print edition.