- - Thursday, September 14, 2017

KERPIMEH, Kosovo — Hasim Haliti begins every morning with a salute to Bill Clinton.

A glass-framed, eight-year-old poster wishing the former president a happy 63rd birthday “from the People of Kosovo” in Albanian and English hangs over his bed.

It may be dated, but Mr. Haliti has no plans to take it down or cull the other pictures of American politicians and military generals from the late 1990s that hang in his little cafe-bar near the village mosque here in northeastern Kosovo.

Few Americans ever pass through Kerpimeh, a remote village of around 800 near the Serbian border. But a deep affection for the United States, one undimmed through the Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations, still runs deep here in the country in gratitude for the critical U.S. role in liberating it from Serbia 18 years ago.

Global surveys say this tiny Balkan country has the highest approval of U.S. leadership in the world. This unconditional love appears to be staying even as America’s image abroad takes a hit among other allies uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s “America first” agenda.

“How can we not love America when it was because of them that we could return to our homes?” asked Mr. Haliti, 38, who fled to the mountains during the 1998-99 war with Serbia and found when he returned that Serbs had burned down his cafe. “We were more than happy to return to our burned homes and live under plastic sheets because finally there was peace. There were no more shots and no more massacres.”

Mr. Haliti’s posters are one of many examples of attitudes toward the U.S. by the minority ethnic Albanian Kosovars. (It’s a different story for the small nation’s restive ethnic Serbian minority.) The Stars and Stripes is perhaps more ubiquitous than the blue-and-gold national flag. American flags fly in front of gas stations, government buildings, restaurants and homes. Protesters even carry Old Glory at anti-government protests.

The history of Kosovo’s admiration for America began even before Mr. Clinton ordered NATO to bomb Serbian military bases and other strategic targets in Kosovo. Serbian forces left the region in 1999 after 78 days of the airstrikes, clearing the path for the breakaway province to declare its independence.

Kosovo’s first president, Ibrahim Rugova, delivered news conferences every Friday throughout the 1990s. He ended each one with “God bless America, NATO and the United Nations.” The phrase stuck with the public.

“People kept repeating it,” said Agron Demi, a policy analyst at the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. “Maybe in the beginning it sounded a bit ridiculous, but after time, people got used to it.”

Lady Liberty in the circle

A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands at one of Pristina’s busiest traffic circles, perched on the rooftop of a new police station. But perhaps the most famous landmark is an 11-foot bronze statue of a waving Mr. Clinton on Bill Clinton Boulevard in downtown Pristina. The former president himself attended the unveiling of the statue in 2009.

Zeqir Rama, 75, was one of the thousands of locals who swarmed the statue for a glimpse of the man himself. According to Mr. Rama, he even got to shake Mr. Clinton’s hand. “It was because of America that we’re safe now,” he said. “Especially this guy behind me [pointing at the statue] and his family, may he live as long as possible.”

A few feet away from the statue is a women’s clothing boutique called “Hillary” that specializes in dresses and pantsuits. One of the boutique owners, Elda Morina, proudly displays photos of Mrs. Clinton when the former first lady visited Kosovo and the shop as secretary of state.

Elsewhere, streets named after Republicans and Democrats and the 50 U.S. states crisscross cities and towns throughout Kosovo, honoring figures from Madeleine Albright and Woodrow Wilson to Bob Dole, Martin Luther King and George W. Bush. Mr. Bush will always be remembered here as the first U.S. president to support an independent Kosovo. There’s even a driving school named after Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander who directed the air war during the Kosovo war.

Younger Kosovars might not remember the war, but they still understand America’s responsibility in liberating Kosovo.

“The Americans had the main role to intervene in Kosovo, and we see them as our heroes,” said Kushtrim Krasniqi, 31, a network engineer from the eastern city of Gjilan.

Mr. Krasniqi, his brother and two tech friends created a website called “Kosovo If Trump Wins” as a joke right before the election. Their main goal was to entice visitors — especially Americans — to come to Kosovo if the Republican took office.

“We are friendly to all foreigners, but especially with Americans,” he said.

They didn’t think Mr. Trump would win. The day after the election, their website crashed after more than 10,000 visitors tried to access it.

These days Mr. Krasniqi is nostalgic for his childhood when he sees American troops in Kosovo. “I would greet any soldier I would see. It’s an old habit really,” he said.

The soldiers have been here for the past 18 years as part of a NATO peacekeeping force called the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, to maintain peace and stability in the country. Around 700 U.S. troops remain, stationed at the large U.S. Army base in southern Kosovo called Camp Bondsteel, off the new Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Road.

Most Kosovo Albanians do not want the Americans to leave.

“We’re a tiny country. If America would leave, the Serbs would occupy this place in two or three hours. Who would stop them?” said Mr. Haliti, the cafe owner.

Mr. Demi agrees that there is a sense of comfort in having the Americans still in Kosovo. “I think the love for America is just the security and the things they have done for us until now,” he said. “For the first time there is a superpower that is helping you without asking something in return, and I think that has to do with why people love America.”

Back in Kerpimeh, Mr. Haliti hoped Americans wouldn’t forget Kosovo either.

“I wish that we could be another star on the American flag,” he said, the posterized Mr. Clinton grinning down on him as he spoke. “I would love it if Kosovo would have been a part of America.”

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