With the backing of the US and most EU countries, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Since then, trying to present the newest country in Europe in a positive light has become a public relations nightmare given that a dark shadow is cast over the tiny Balkan country by its leaders' "criminal" public personas. Accused of corruption, murder, and linked to the mafia by the Council of Europe and other major international watchdog organizations, Kosovo's most senior leaders went from the toast of the town to suspected felons in a few years. They find themselves isolated and rarely invited to meet with world leaders outside of their country. Meanwhile its key allies, most notably the US, the UK, and the other major EU countries, have been scurrying behind the scenes to find a respectful partner able to help them build Kosovo's democratic institution and to lead the independence recognition campaign. It appears they may have found such a partner in the newly elected President Atifete Jahjaga.
A former Major General in the Kosovo Police force, in April 2011 at the age of 36, Atifete Jahjaga became the first woman and youngest President in Kosovo's brief history as an independent state. In the wake of political bickering between Kosovo's major political parties that threatened to bring down an already teetery governing structure, a weak leader who lacked a political party affiliation and support and therefore could not challenge the ruling political parties was the only compromise. Jahjaga fit the bill. With no prior political experience, Ms. Jahjaga went from obscurity to prominence in a matter of days, literally, which may have proven to be a blessing in disguise for her and Kosovo.
The post of President is a ceremonial position and Ms. Jahjaga was expected to remain on the sidelines until next year's presidential elections when current Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is expected to run for the office. However, Ms. Jahjaga may manage to remain, as she has proven in a short time that she has both the courage and the vision needed of a stateswoman to mend the domestic and international political rifts that have been detrimental to the country.
Unlike many of her high-ranking colleagues in government who since coming to power have become millionaires with villas and businesses scattered throughout Kosovo, Ms. Jahjaga and her husband live in a modest apartment in Prishtina. Her lifestyle reflects her monthly state salary, which is highly unusual for Kosovo leaders, and a welcomed surprise.
Free from Kosovo's village-like political scene and la dolce vita lifestyle of her contemporaries, she brings with her the hope that Kosovo's political culture can be changed from one that is primarily loyal to the party, to one that is primarily loyal to the State. She is leading by example by reaching beyond political lines to recruit some of Kosovo's Western-educated elite who have for years refrained from serving in the government due to cronyism. Her cabinet is comprised of Kosovar graduates from some of the top US and European universities -- Yale, Oxford, The New School for Social Research, to name a few -- and with years of hands on experience in international affairs.
On the international stage, world leaders have welcomed her with open arms. During her most recent trip to New York for the UN General Assembly Meeting, she was the only Kosovar leader invited to meet President Obama. In Brussels, senior EU leaders welcomed her fresh approach, which seeks solutions and better coordinates their efforts in and outside Kosovo. This is a striking change from the time, not so many weeks ago, when such meetings were used by the Kosovar leaders to defend themselves from the many accusations levied against them by international human rights organizations.
Kosovo needs political leaders that can bring much needed international support and recognition to the country. In the current turbulent world economic and political environment, a small country like Kosovo cannot afford to make political or social mistakes that may result in a lost opportunity to gain the support of international decision makers. Some may argue that her popularity may have less to do with her political savoir-faire and more to do with both the international community and general public disenchantment with the current Kosovar leaders. Whatever the reason, at least for the time being, with President Jahjaga they have a political partner who uses her meetings with world leaders to present the interest of the Kosovo people and not like many of the Kosovo leaders who use the such opportunities to defend themselves and their party members from on-going criminal investigations.