Huffpost WorldPost
David L. Phillips Headshot

Tradition and History Matter to Albanians

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Tradition and history matter to Albanians. As voters go to the polls tomorrow, they should remember that Kosova's independence was no gift. The decision to go to war and the determined effort by the United States and its allies to realize Kosova's independence was the culmination of efforts over many years. The Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) played a pivotal role in giving Kosova's cause credibility.

The LDK was established as a national party on December 23, 1989. Albanians flocked to join the LDK as an expression of discontent with Serbia's tyrannical rule. Ibrahim Rugova, whom I am proud to call a friend, was not a professional politician. He was a scholar of literary history and aesthetics whose populist nationalism gave voice to the grievances of Kosova Albanians.

The LDK refused to participate in Serbian elections and boycotted Serbian institutions. When Kosovars went to Parliament on July 2, 1990, the building was blockaded by police. Kosovars met on its steps in an act of defiance. The LDK-led Kosova Assembly convened in Kacanik and declared independence on September 7, 1990. The LDK's platform repudiated ethnic cleansing. It rejected minority status for ethnic Albanians in Serbia. It demanded communication and free travel to Albania. A referendum was held on September 26. Ballots were cast by 87 percent of voters with 99 percent voting for independence.

I was witness to dozens of meetings between the LDK leadership and U.S. officials. The LDK cultivated strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress -- Senators Bob Dole and Joe Lieberman, and Congressman Tom Lantos and Bill Broomfield. Kosovars have no better friend on Capitol Hill than Congressman Eliot Engel. These friendships did not spring up overnight. They were the result of hard work by the LDK and Albanian Americans.

Kosova had no legal status, but the LDK succeeded in working within the UN-system. It was helped by Albania, a UN member State, to make its case. After years of the LDK's advocacy in Geneva, the UN General Assembly finally adopted a stand-alone Kosova resolution on March 13, 1995. It described discriminatory measures against ethnic Albanians in Kosova -- torture, killings, arbitrary arrests, searches, forced evictions, the closing of Albanian-language secondary schools and the university, as well as scientific and cultural institutions. According to an Albanian friend, "We finally got Kosova out of Yugoslavia."

As the face of Kosova's independence movement in the United States, Dr. Rugova was committed to working with U.S. officials on political dialogue. These efforts were doomed, however, by Serbia's aggression. Rugova joined Kosovars deploring the murder of Adem Jeshari and his family in Donji Prekaj on January 22, 1998. Though Rugova accommodated the U.S. position during negotiations at Rambouillet, he knew that Belgrade would never agree. He also understood that NATO would only get involved once diplomacy had fully and finally run its course.

As a gesture of appreciation for the LDK's role, the LDK won 21 of 27 contested municipalities and 58 percent of the popular vote in elections of October 2000. However, Kosova's interim status was untenable. The 2004 spring riots galvanized action by the international community.

Elections were held in October 2004. Ramush Haradinaj became prime minister on December 3, 2004. Rugova and Haradinaj served together in leadership positions for just 100 days. This period -- a "golden age" -- represented a unique period in Kosova's political life. Kosova developed an action plan for self-rule. Kosovars took responsibility for their future. Criminals were sidelined by calls for national service.

Mr. Haradinaj was sent to The Hague based on politically motivated and trumped-up charges. Under new leadership, Kosova entered a period of stagnation with politicians placing self-interest above the greater good.

Kosovars could see that Dr. Rugova was unwell when he showed up to inaugurate the Mother Teresa Cathedral on August 26, 2005. I was with Dr. Rugova at his home just a few weeks before he died. He wore a baseball cap to cover his balding from chemotherapy. Dr. Rugova was determined to live and celebrate Kosova's independence, he passed away in the middle of negotiations. President Bush wrote, "The United States has lost a true friend." Condoleezza Rice issued a statement, "Even while battling his final illness, President Rugova worked to bring unity to Kosova's leaders and hope to its people."

The dream of independence was born at the Kosova Literary Society in 1989. It was realized after Dr. Rugova's death. I was honored to be in Pristina for independence celebrations on February 17, 1998.

To this day, I am amazed, and proud, that the United States went to war to prevent from happening in Kosova what happened in Bosnia. Kosova has always been a bipartisan project in the United States. President Bill Clinton deserves credit for exhausting diplomatic options and then leading NATO's action in 1999. President George W. Bush also deserves acknowledgement for stewarding Kosova's coordinated declaration of independence.

Today Kosova is free. It is, however, a flawed state with serious problems. Every UN Member State should recognize Kosova's independence, but only 106 have recognized it so far.

Now is the time for Kosovars to vote and express their determination for reform. Democracy and good government will make Kosova an equal and respected member of the family of nations.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs experts at the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Phillips is author of "Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention" (Harvard's Kennedy School and NBC Publishing).