It was Christmas Eve in 1992, when the people of Kosovo received the best gift that anyone could ever wish for. The president of the United States of America, George H.W. Bush, sent a message to Serbia stating that “In the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.” When few people could find Kosovo on a map, it was Bush who drew the red line, and the United States has stood by the people of Kosovo ever since.
The 1990s were a dark time for the Western Balkans. When most people think of the Balkans, they remember the gruesome wars of the ’90s. However, what is all too often overlooked are the decades of systematic oppression, segregation and exploitation carried out by the Serbian regime. Years of unspeakable suffering when the people of Kosovo were stripped of their rights and subjected to dehumanizing treatment. The horrors of the ’90s culminated with the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign, which was perpetrated by Serbian forces. One million Kosovars were chased out of their country, more than 10,000 of them were killed, nearly 20,000 women were raped, and 1,600 are still missing.
On March 24, 1999 the United States led the NATO air-strike humanitarian intervention that effectively ended the reign of terror in Kosovo. President Bill Clinton, proclaimed, “if we and our allies were to allow this war to continue with no response, President Milosevic would read our hesitation as a license to kill.” Once again, it was our American friends who came to our rescue. When U.S. troops arrived in Kosovo in 1999, they were at home. They were greeted with smiles, cheers and flowers. In the time since, Kosovo has been host to countless Americans, military and civilian alike. They are our friends, our mentors, our family.
The wounds of war do not heal easily, and they never truly disappear. But freedom does have recuperative power. So slowly but surely, the people of Kosovo rebuilt. We drew strength from one another, and we had hope because we were not alone in our struggle. America had our back. When the time came for us to complete our quest for independence, it was President George W. Bush who in 2007 said “You’ve got to say ‘enough is enough’, Kosovo is independent.” Needless to say, Kosovo declared its independence on Feb. 17, 2008.
Democracy is not easy, but Kosovo has proven that it is up to the task. With the help of the Obama administration our country made enormous strides in becoming more integrated into the international community. Kosovo has worked hard to demonstrate its readiness to meet the responsibilities of full membership in the European Union. However, no one was surprised that when Kosovo was ready to transition from a consumer to a contributor of security by establishing its armed forces, it was the Trump administration that spearheaded the effort.
Since its transformation, KSF has already made incredible progress in capacity building, modernization and harmonization with NATO standards. Whether in fighting ISIS or Hezbollah, Kosovo has always remained in lockstep with the United States. As a sign of commitment to enduring peace and long-term prosperity in the region, NATO continues to maintain a presence in Kosovo. Today, its mission is to serve as a deterrent and regional capacity-building center.
Kosovo is a secular and multiethnic country that is enriched by its diversity. In Kosovo, you will find cities where the Catholic church, Orthodox church, and Muslim mosque, all share the same backyard. The religious tolerance and harmony which we have cultivated throughout centuries is a badge of honor, which we wear proudly. Kosovars cherish their history and heritage, but it is without question that Kosovo’s most famous social export is pro-Americanism.
A champion of free media, a hub for innovation, and globally known for its legendary 4th of July parties, Kosovo lives up to its true reputation. I have no doubt that one day the professionalism of our institutions will match the integrity of our media, the success of our artists and athletes, the strength of our women, and the resilience of our civil society.
Kosovo wants peace with its neighbors and is prepared to continue the dialogue with Serbia. However, we are vigilant of our hard-won freedom. It is an ideal which we were prepared to die for and which we will fight to preserve. We owe it to those who paid the ultimate price. The White House has taken up the mantle and appointed two Special Envoys who have infused the region with new energy. Ambassador Richard Grenell is now fearlessly leading the charge of ending the century-old conflict between Kosovo and Serbia with a final agreement. As nefarious forces attempt to undercut this process, President Donald Trump has laid down the law by making it clear that the United States “see mutual recognition as the foundation of normalized relation and the basis for any comprehensive solution.”
Kosovo has always enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States. A popular expression in Kosovo says that “if you don’t know U.S. politics, you will get lost in the streets.” In our capital, Prishtina, we have a Bill Clinton statue, right next to a George W. Bush boulevard. Madeleine Albright square is a five-minute walk away from Bob Dole street. When it comes to navigation, Kosovars know exactly where the north star is, and that is on the banner, right next to the stripes.
Kosovo and the United States share a truly special bond built upon the history that unites us and the shared vision that leads us into the future. This relationship is the bedrock of our democracy. That is precisely why, in the time of COVID-19, when the world is overcome by feelings of uncertainty, there’s one thing I can say for sure, Kosovo is a success story of which all Americans can be proud.
• Vlora Citaku is ambassador of Kosovo to the United States.