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 of its newly appointed ambassador, is seeking to shed the past and put a fresh face on the newly independent nation.
“I got the offer to do public service as an ambassador and I was honored and privileged to accept,” said Akan Ismaili, a warm, friendly man, with an inviting smile, the type of visage one would imagine a new nation would want to present when introducing itself to the rest of the world.
If you haven’t read about Kosovo in the headlines lately, it could be because the Olympics, from which Kosovo is notably absent, are currently dominating news coverage. If you searched for Kosovo in the Parade of Nations, you wouldn’t have found it. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to allow Kosovo or its athletes to participate in the Games of the XXX Olympiad. The IOC will likely require Kosovo to first be recognized as an independent nation by the United Nations (UN) before considering it eligible.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation we are facing. We have a very skilled young lady who couldn’t compete under the Kosovo flag. We worked very hard right up until the end to make it possible, but it was not,” said Ismaili. He was speaking about Majlinda Kelmendi, a judo competitor who won the 2009 Gold Medal at the World Junior Championships.
Kelmendi was, however, eventually allowed to compete in the 2012 London Olympic Games, but had to do so under the Albanian flag. She was eliminated and did not medal.
“I watched her compete. It was a very good day for all of us,” Ismaili said. “If she could have competed under the Kosovo flag that would have been very special and we’re looking forward to a day when she can do that.”
With Ismaili at the helm in the United States, Kosovo hopes to find itself in friendlier territory, not just in terms of international sporting events like the Olympics, but on all fronts.
Ismaili on May 2 officially presented his credentials to President Barack Obama as the Ambassador of Kosovo to the United States. The 38-year-old is Kosovo’s second ambassador to the U.S., following his predecessor, Avni Spahiu. “It was a great feeling to be in the White House, such a historic building. The whole thing was just amazing,” said Ismaili of the credentialing ceremony.
He laughed as he relayed the story of his 6-year-old son, Lir, who was nervous to meet the President. “He asked me ‘What do I say to him?’ and I said, ‘Say I’m honored to meet you Mr. President.’” When Lir’s turn came to be introduced to President Obama as the first family met the Ismaili’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 speaks and understands English. He and his 34-year-old wife Fitore along with Lir and the couple’s 3-year-old daughter Ame spend their free time on the weekends exploring the museums, zoo and sites around D.C. “Every weekend we have a project,” Ismaili said, adding that the many adventures to be had around town and how green the city is are what he likes best about Washington.
He also raved about the city’s food selection. “I love the variety of food.” His favorite place to eat in D.C.? “BLT Steakhouse. It’s very high quality.” But his favorite food selection? “Japanese. I could eat tuna 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 who would want to invest. My job is about building and maintaining relationships. 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 and nurture.”
Ismaili said what he misses most about home is, “the long mid-day breaks. It’s a cultural thing. People have more interaction with each other. Lunch was at least an hour and a half. Morning coffee was a time with people. Here most communication is done on the phone or online.”
The Kosovo about which he reminisces is not one which first springs into the minds of many Americans. Kosovo made headlines last summer for violent border clashes that occurred when Kosovo police crossed into the Serb-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, parts of northern Kosovo maintain a sort of de facto independent autonomy due to a heavily concentrated Serb population.
“In the north the influences of the Serbian government have created a parallel structure. [The border clashes] were our attempt to control our borders. Right now in the north they’re open and being used for tax evasion and imports to the black market,” said Ismaili.
Kosovo is currently working with the European Union (EU) to find a solution for the northern border. The country also seeks EU, NATO and UN membership — a process that is being held up on all counts primarily by countries such as Russia and Serbia that do not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation.
Membership to these organizations is of, “highest priority for our government and our people,” said Ismaili. “Euro-Atlantic integration is crucial and it has done miracles for countries of the region.”
For membership to NATO, Kosovo will also have to develop a standing army. Currently, its armed forces are the Kosovo Force (K Force), a NATO-led international peacekeeping force.
NATO and the EU also demand member nations resolve and normalize relationships with neighboring countries. The current tension between Kosovo and Serbia jeopardizes this.
The U.S. faces its own problems as well, and in the midst of an economic slump, many are calling for foreign divestment and slashes to foreign aid which could affect nations like Kosovo. “Divesting at this point would be losing your entire investment,” said Ismaili, citing the importance both to Kosovo and the U.S. of a continued relationship. “So much has been accomplished by U.S. investments in the region and leaving now is throwing everything away which would be a wrong decision.”
Ismaili cautioned against over-emphasis of the religious component of Kosovo by the media. “We have a Muslim history but we’re really Islam light. The people are very modern and pro-European and pro-Western.”
If there is one thing Ismaili could tell Americans about Kosovo, it is about “the energy. The population is very young and energetic. You feel that from the moment you land. You’d be surprised how pro-American the country is and how grateful for American support.”