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Kosovo leader speaks softly, carries big hope

Insists separatism set no precedent

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2011

The president of Kosovo is troubled when her 3-year-old nation is compared to other regions with separatist movements, whether in northern Spain, the Middle East, the former Soviet bloc or Asia.

"Kosovo does not set a precedent," President Atifete Jahjaga told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "I don't like to see comparisons with any other case, or any other circumstances, or any other country. We are a case on our own."

Mrs. Jahjaga is the first woman to rise to the highest office of a Balkan nation, and she is only 36. These facts have inspired headlines as well as audiences during her U.S. visit.

The firmness with which she resists having Kosovo's independence characterized as a model for dissident movements defies the position taken by a handful of larger nations, including China, Russia and Spain.

Those countries, along with others eager to express solidarity with Serbia, remain unwilling to recognize Kosovo for fear of emboldening separatist groups operating in their own corners of the globe.

The International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Kosovo's independence last year, dashing Serbian hopes of bringing the breakaway province back into its orbit and effectively making Kosovo the seventh nation to separate itself from the rubble of Yugoslavia.

While 85 nations officially recognize Kosovo, the U.N. Security Council is divided because China and Russia, two of the five members with veto power, remain opposed.

Russia's resistance stems from its longtime alliance with Serbia, along with the precedent Kosovo sets for Chechnya's independence aspirations. China's resistance appears similarly tied to fears of Tibetan sovereignty.

Israel also rejects Kosovo, primarily out of concern that Palestinians will use it to justify their own unilateral declaration of independence.

However, lingering opposition within the European Union looms most significantly for Kosovo, which is eager to pursue EU membership.

While the EU has collectively backed the deployment of police to Kosovo, five of its 27 member countries - Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain - remain unwilling to recognize the nation's independence from Serbia.

Spain, which for years has sought to crush Basque separatists in its own northern region, may be the most influential with respect to its ability to stifle Kosovo's EU aspirations.

Mrs. Jahjaga declined to specify whether an effort to persuade Spain to change its mind was a focus of her meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week. The Kosovar president said only that there is a "continuous lobbying" effort being "supported by our strategic partners and the friendly countries which have so far recognized our independence."

The Basque movement's decline over recent years could prompt a softening of Spain's posture on Kosovo. Mrs. Jahjaga said she is "very much pleased" about recent "messages coming from Spain."

There appears to be "an atmosphere of moving on," she said.

Resistance from within the EU could become irrelevant if Serbia moves toward recognizing Kosovo. While Serbia's own EU aspirations may hang in the balance, domestic politics could prevent a recognition of Kosovo.

Mrs. Jahjaga, a Muslim and ethnic Albanian, has taken an unyielding stance on the issue of Kosovo-Serb land disputes since she was elected in April by parliamentary vote.

She has publicly rejected the notion that Kosovo's predominantly ethnic-Serb north could ever rejoin Serbia, and she has accused Serbia of provoking anarchy in the area.

Serb leaders in northern Kosovo recently circulated a draft peace initiative calling for political dialogue from both sides to ease tensions in the region.

Mrs. Jahjaga, who has trained at the FBI National Academy and served as deputy director of the Kosovar police, was optimistic Friday about the future of Kosovo's relations with Serbia.

"We have started a process of dialogue between the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia with the mediation, or facilitation, by the European Union," she told The Times.

She emphasized the opening of a "new chapter" for Kosovo during the decade since Serbian forces violently pushed through the region, violating human rights and displacing some 800,000 ethnic Albanians.

"We have to forget the past," Mrs. Jahjaga said. "History is something that even today we are paying the consequences, and the future is integration.

"We all as a people, as citizens, as the leadership of both countries should be looking in that direction," she added.

Mrs. Jahjaga talked in a voice so soft that she was hard to hear even to those sitting close to her. However, her optimism spoke loudly, reflecting a forward-thinking generation of postwar Balkan politicians.

She added that her election represented a "historical moment, not only for Kosovo, but for all of the Balkans."

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