ALBANIAN AMERICAN CIVIC LEAGUE CONDUCTS FACT-FINDING MISSION TO ALBANIA, MONTENEGRO, AND KOSOVA WITH CONGRESSMAN DANA ROHRABACHER

by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi

 

From August 21 to 27, the Albanian American Civic League conducted a fact-finding mission to Albania, Montenegro, and Kosova with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and his wife, Rhonda. In his new capacity as chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Rohrabacher wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the political, economic, and cultural challenges facing Albanians in the Balkans. As a cosponsor of House Resolution 24, he wanted to evaluate the possibilities for accelerating U.S. recognition of Kosova’s independence.

 

The Rohrabachers were accompanied by AACL President Joe DioGuardi, Balkan Affairs Adviser Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, and Civic League board members Gjergj Dedvukaj, Haki Dervishi, Adem Dukaj, Myslim Kuka, Gazmend Lita, Marash Nuculaj, Ahmat Zeka, and Kol Zagreda. The group visited and held meetings in Tirana, Kruja, Durres, and Shkodra in Albania, Ulqin and Tuzi in Montenegro, and Prishtina, Gjakova, Meje, and Prizren in Kosova. In what follows are some of the highlights of our journey.

 

ALBANIA

 

Meeting with U.S. Ambassador Marcie Ries

 

Underscoring the importance of Congressman Rohrabacher’s visit, U.S. Ambassador Marcie Ries interrupted her vacation with her husband in Saranda to hold a working breakfast with Congressman Rohrabacher and the Civic League board at the Sheraton Hotel in Tirana. Ambassador Ries emphasized the “special relationship that Albania has with the United States” because of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s role in creating the sovereign State of Albania in the aftermath of World War I and the NATO air strikes against Serbia led by America in defense of Kosova in 1999. “Albanians see the United States as the ultimate embodiment of what they want for themselves,” she said. This is a major reason why she thinks that we need to counter Europe’s historically negative approach to the Balkans and to look at Albania in a positive light.

 

Ambassador Ries cited the fact that Albania is the second poorest country in Europe after Moldova, a reality that is connected to its emergence only fourteen years ago from a regime that left it somewhere “between North Korea and East Germany in terms of repression and paranoia.” She acknowledged the fact that the “gray economy” and “remittances” from Albanians working in America, Western Europe, and Greece obscure the lack of real jobs in Albania. Nevertheless, she emphasized the economic potential of Albania, with its large population of energetic and educated young people and the possibilities for strong growth in tourism, agriculture, and hydroelectric power.

 

On the political front, Ambassador Ries said that, while the July 3, 2005, elections were imperfect, they were “a definite step forward.” According to her, the outcome of the elections amounted to “a rethinking of who we are and where we are going,” citing Democratic Party Chairman and Prime Minister Elect Sali Berisha’s “anti-corruption platform” in a society where bribes and corruption currently exist at all levels. She is interested in “pushing Albania forward,” and affirmed America’s commitment to curbing crime, eradicating trafficking, instilling belief in the rule of law, building an independent judiciary, and bringing a solid banking system and real jobs to Albania.

 

Ambassador Ries credited Albania for its support of America in the war on terror, having committed 150 troops to Iraq. She expressed the hope that the U.S. government would sustain its interest in the Balkans and support Albania as it gets into the EU and NATO track.

 

Meeting with Prime Minister Elect Sali Berisha

 

Our meeting with Dr. Sali Berisha in the Tirana International Hotel took place after the rerun of the recent national elections in four electoral zones. Although the count was not yet available, Berisha is expected to assume office as Prime Minister of Albania at the beginning of September.

 

Berisha opened his discussion with the Civic League about his plan to reach out to members of the Albanian diaspora so that “you can save your national identity wherever you are.” He said that the right of Albanian citizens residing outside of Albania to vote, at least in national elections, would be granted soon, as well as a three-year tax break for Albanians immigrants or members of the diaspora who want to invest in Albania and the opening of summer schools for their children.

 

Much of his presentation was focused on the need to eradicate corruption, which he said had increased 400 percent since 1996 and to bring jobs to Albania (the lack of which was forcing 100,000 men and women to leave Albania annually). He cited as a positive factor the greater awareness of and opposition to corruption now (80 percent), as compared to 1996 (28 percent). Prime Minister Elect Berisha promised to remove immunity for public officials engaged in corruption, to pass laws preventing members of government from engaging in conflicts of interest, and to appoint an ombudsman from civil society to handle procurement above US$10,000. Congressman Rohrabacher responded by suggesting that Dr. Berisha make it clear from the moment that he takes office that corruption will not be tolerated.

 

Both Dr. Berisha and Congressman Rohrabacher engaged in a discussion about the importance of taking advantage of the Albanian coastline and the new technologies. Berisha said that “thirty years ago the seaside was empty, and that the country must leave the mountains and return to the sea.” Rohrabacher stressed the importance of providing 99-year leases to investors who want to develop the coastline, a provision that has been on the books, according to Dr. Berisha since 1995, and using the Internet to engage Albania’s young population and to compete on the world market. Rohrabacher also suggested that Berisha make Albania tax-free for writers and inventors around the world.

 

Congressman Rohrabacher raised an issue at this meeting that he would repeat throughout the trip: the need to counter the false propaganda of Albanians as a potentially fundamentalist, terrorist Muslim force in the heart of Europe. He proposed to Prime Minister Elect Berisha that he offer to augment Albanian forces (which are largely Muslim) in Iraq to 500, and that if Berisha were willing to this, Rohrabacher would announce this from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as part of an initiative to counter the lies and the bias against Albanians as “adherents to radical Islam.” Berisha agreed, citing the centuries-long coexistence of Albanians as European Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Catholics, “who successfully fought for a Latin alphabet and a secular government and who have always stood side by side America.”

 

MONTENEGRO

 

Meeting with Dr. Nail Draga, Loro Mariqi, Esq, and historian Riza Rexha.

 

Dr. Draga, who participated in the Civic League’s delegation to Montenegro with Congressman Tom Lantos in August 2003 and who testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on the future of Albanians in Montenegro in October of that year, addressed the destructive impact of forced assimilation in Montenegro at a working lunch inside the Illyrian Castle in Ulqin, which dates back to 500 B.C. Dr. Draga cited the “Slavicization of education” as one of the biggest problems for Albanians in Montenegro” and called for an independent Albanian institution in Montenegro to foster Albanian culture and tradition. There is no institution of higher learning in the Albanian language, and only 30 out of 8,000 university students in Montenegro are Albanian. He noted that the Serbian government has recently allowed Albanian students in Presheva, Medvegje, and Bujanoc to use Albanian textbooks, but that the Montenegrin government has not yet taken this step. “From the doorman to the government, no Albanians are employed in cultural institutions.” He pointed out that “Rapsha,” the annual summer concert that brings together Albanian artists from across the globe, is financed by the Albanian diaspora.

 

Both Dr. Draga and lawyer Loro Mariqi drew attention to the siphoning off of the profits of Ulqin’s tourism industry and the confiscation of Albanian land by the government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic under the guise of “restructuring them.” Draga and Mariqi cited the recent liquidation of the salt factory in Ulqin and its transference to Montenegrin Slav owners and employees as part of an historical pattern of confiscation that continues to worsen the economic prospects of the Albanian majority in Ulqin.

 

Professor Riza Rexha stressed the problem of forced emigration of Albanians in Montenegro, beginning in 1878, after the socalled “Great Powers” at the Congress of Berlin allowed Montenegro to annex Albanian lands, to the forcible removal of 800 Albanian families from Ulqin after the Balkan War of 1912-1913, to the flight of 17,000 Albanian youth fleeing conscription into the Montenegrin military in 1998-1999.

 

Meeting in Tuzi

 

Educator Anton Lajcaj and lawyer Muhamed Gjokaj, who have been working with the

Civic League since Congressman Lantos’s visit to Montenegro in 2003, briefed Congressman Rohrabacher and the DioGuardis on efforts to reinstate the status of Tuzi as a commune, to oppose the Capital City Bill, which would carve up Tuzi and place it under the complete control of Podgorica, and to sue the government for the confiscation and transfer to Montenegrin Slavs of vineyards owned by several thousand Albanians (a suit that has been in court for the past seven years). Congressman Rohrabacher expressed his belief that “local people must control local powers” and his opinion that the Montenegrin government would have to grant Albanians in Tuzi the same rights enjoyed by municipalities in which Slavs are a majority if it wanted admission to the European Union.

 

The briefing by Lajcaj and Gjokaj was followed by a meeting with activists in Tuzi and Mehmet Bardhi, the leader of the Democratic League of Albanians in Montenegro, that focused on Albanian opposition to the Capital City Bill, which is slated to be passed in the Montenegrin parliament this fall. At this meeting, Joe DioGuardi appealed to the Tuzi community to take advantage of “the great opportunity that Albanians in Montenegro have because Montenegro wants to become independent from Serbia and part of the European Union.” Civic League Balkans Affairs Adviser Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi reminded the community that the Civic League’s initiative on behalf of Albanians in Montenegro began in 2003 with Congressman Tom Lantos, while the effort on behalf of Kosova began in the mid-1980s when Joe DioGuardi became a Congressman. She asked the Tuzi community not to underestimate the impact of Congressman Lantos’s trip to Montenegro, his subsequent Congressional hearing on the “future of Albanians in Montenegro,” and his continuing engagement with Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic about the need to give Albanians equal status. Cloyes appealed to the Tuzi community to help build the case for Albanians in Montenegro in the press and parliaments of the world, and called for the putting aside of divisions in the Balkans and in the diaspora to accomplish this goal. While the United States can help, she and Joe DioGuardi stated that the case for Albanians in Tuzi needed to be made first and foremost in Montenegro.

 

KOSOVA

Before flying to Kosova, Congressman Rohrabacher, Joe DioGuardi, and Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi met with Albanian President Alfred Moisiu. Congressman Rohrabacher told President Moisiu that “it means a lot that so many Albanians are Muslims and are in Iraq.” He promised to “make it clear to the decision makers in Washington that we owe a debt to Albanians” for coming to the aid of the United States in Iraq, and that we should respond by recognizing the independence to Kosova.

 

Meeting with U.S. Chief of Mission Philip Goldberg

 

Philip Goldberg explained that the international community had entered a new phase in Kosova from 2004-2005, with the arrival of UNMIK’s SRSG Soren Jessen-Petersen, who “brought a new attitude and a new vitality to Kosova,” and the return to Kosova of Larry Rossin as his deputy. He credited Jessen-Petersen and Rossin with turning around a UN operation that had “become bureaucratic and was operating from the top down instead of partnering with the people of Kosova.” And he said that Jessen-Petersen and UN envoy Kai Eide would “accelerate the process of devolving responsibility to locals and moving to final status.”

 

In a succinct overview of the events of 2005 in Kosova, Goldberg divided the year

into three time frames: 1) The elections that resulted in an LDK-AAK coalition with Ibrahim Rugova as president and Ramush Haradinaj as prime minister, 2) Haradinaj’s “dynamic” three and a half months in office, followed by his indictment by the ICTY, and 3) the beginning of final status deliberations with the return of Kai Eide at UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s request.

 

In a discussion of Ramush Haradinaj, Goldberg stated that Ramush “worked well with the international community” and that “it was a blow when he left.” Congressman Rohrabacher responded by saying that “indicting Ramush Haradinaj was equivalent to indicting Alexander Hamilton” (the eighteenth century American statesman who was a delegate to the Continental Congress and played a decisive role in shaping domestic and foreign policy in the first decade after the American revolution).

 

Philip Goldberg talked about the need to improve interethnic relations in Kosova between Albanians (more than 90 percent of the population) and Serbs (7 percent). He said that the decentralization process was intended to “reassure Serb communities of their local control,” at the same time that it would “tie them into Kosova.” Currently, Belgrade, which exerts political and financial control over most of Kosova’s Serb population, “has done nothing to help the process,” Goldberg said.

 

Congressman Rohrabacher asked Philip Goldberg about his views of the propaganda spread in the United States in the aftermath of the March 2004 riots that cast Kosovar Albanians as “Muslim terrorists.” Goldberg stated that the events of 2004 were “a national issue, not a religious issue,” and that nothing like them had taken place since then. He emphasized that Kosovar Albanians are a “very secular population with little interest in radical Islam.” Even though a few mosques had been built by fundamentalist Muslims from Saudi Arabia, they have “not been well received,” Goldberg noted.

 

Congressman Rohrabacher said that “progress was visible” since his last trip to Kosova in 2000, but he felt that “progress would be greater if we had done something earlier.” Citing the cost of maintaining U.S. troops in Kosova and the fact that more troops are needed in Iraq, Rohrabacher said that “the quicker we move, the better.” Goldberg responded by stating that “declaring independence now is not our view of what is desirable and what should happen.” He stressed the importance of the final status deliberations that will be carried out by a UN envoy from Europe with the help of a U.S. deputy. He also pointed out that there are “big issues that go beyond the interethnic problem,” one of which is the fact that the “European Union has been and will continue to put a lot of money into Kosova and the region.” He stressed the “great opportunity” that Kosova has because it is being offered access to the European Union. Congressman Rohrabacher responded by asserting his belief that “five years is a long time” (since war’s end), that Kosovars have a right “to determine their own destiny at the ballot box,” and that we should permit them to “take over their own country.”

 

Final status deliberations, pending Kai Eide’s report, are scheduled to begin in the fall.

Philip Goldberg stated that the Contact Group, with Russia signing on, has already agreed

that no partition of Kosova or new unions of countries will take place.

 

Meeting with Kosova Assembly President Nexhat Daci and members of parliament serving on the Committee on International Cooperation and EU Integration

 

Kosova Assembly President Nexhat Daci convened an official meeting of the Committee on International Cooperation and EU Integration with Congressman Rohrabacher and members of the Albanian American Civic League in the Assembly building on August 26.

 

Committee Chairman Sabri Hamiti said that, “Recent developments have brought clarity to the situation in Kosova but not final status.” The “optimum outcome,” he said, is that “Kosova becomes independent based on the will of the people that has already been expressed in a referendum.” According to Hamiti, this position amounts to “a compromise on the Albanian side.” An independent Kosova is “our national compromise”—one that “rules out a ‘greater Albania.’”

 

Hamiti was critical of the standards imposed by the United States and Europe, because they have been used as “an instrument of buying time.” Kosova accepts the norms, but “not when they are used as an obstacle,” one that “leads us on an infinite journey.” Hamiti said that the independence of Kosova is a “condition for peace in the region” and for the social, political, and economic development of Kosova.

 

Hamiti warned that the aspirations of Kosova’s people are being thwarted because of lack of final status and that “they may run out of patience one day.” Consequently, he said that the Committee on International Cooperation “expects Brussels and especially Washington because of Kosovar support for the United States to recognize that the time has come for a breakthrough.”

 

Congressman Rohrabacher responded by saying that “we need to be realistic as well as idealistic.” As an idealist, he said that “Kosova should be free and independent, and elected officials should determine policy and run the country.” This “should have happened yesterday,” he added. As a realist, he said that a “communications war needs to be waged,” because “most people in Washington do not know what is going on in Kosova.” In addition, “because you are a Muslim majority, the lie is being told that you are on the verge of becoming a radical Islamic society.” He said that “Joe DioGuardi, Shirley Cloyes, and their friends are doing a great job in countering this lie and that you need to work closely with them and our friends in Congress.”

 

In this connection, Congressman Rohrabacher stated that “we are blessed by the fact that the two top people in the House International Relations Committee—Congressmen Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos—are advocates for Kosova.” He urged the Kosova government “to take advantage of an opening in the next eighteen months,” before Chairman Henry Hyde retires, to join with him, Lantos, Hyde, and the Albanian American Civic League in pushing the Bush administration to recognize Kosova’s independence.

 

Congressman Rohrabacher explained the failure of the Bush administration (like its predecessors) to move forward on final status resolution as the product of “trying to placate others who are not our allies and who do not share our values.” He said that, “You are people who share our values. I have seen that here, and I will make this known in Washington.”

 

After giving an overview of the Albanian American Civic League’s work in Washington on behalf of Kosova, which has included facilitating three House International Relations Committee hearings since 2003, Joe DioGuardi appealed to Kosova’s parliamentarians to “put political party differences aside in the interest of doing a better job on public relations and lobbying.” You are “not asking for Kosova’s independence in an organized way, and you cannot succeed in Washington unless you work closely together.”

 

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Mother Teresa Cathedral in Prishtina and meeting with Bishop Mark Sopi in Prizren

 

The Kosova government and the Roman Catholic Church, led by Bishop Mark Sopi, broke the ground for a cathedral and cultural and educational center in the name of Mother Teresa at a ceremony that was opened by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC. President Ibrahim Rugova, Bishop Mark Sopi, and other speakers emphasized the age-old peaceful coexistence of Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim Albanians and the desire of Kosovars to emulate the values of Mother Teresa. President Rugova graciously acknowledged the presence of Congressman Rohrabacher and former Congressman Joe DioGuardi, who attended this historic event with members of the Civic League at the invitation of Bishop Sopi. In the evening, the group was received by Bishop Sopi in his rectory in Prizren, after which he and Fr. Shan Zefi joined the Rohrabachers, the DioGuardis, and the Civic League board for a celebratory dinner in the heart of Prizren.

 

Commemoration and burial of the remains of 21 Gjakovars recently returned from Serbia

 

Congressman Rohrabacher and Joe DioGuardi spoke at the August 26 commemoration and burial in Meje of twenty-one men and boys from Gjakova and surrounding villages who were executed by Slobodan Milosevic’s military and paramilitary forces during the 1999 war. In an effort to conceal the scope of Serbian atrocities in Kosova, Serbian troops secretly transported the bodies of these men and boys along with hundreds of others in refrigerated trucks to Belgrade, where they were reburied in mass graves. The graves were not discovered until 2001, and since then 566 Albanian victims (out of 2,400) have been identified and returned to Kosova. Seeking to bring to international attention the fate of the missing and healing to their families, whose agony has been prolonged by Serbia’s delay in returning the dead, Civic League board member Haki Dervishi and his family helped create the commemorative event in Meje. DioGuardi declared in his speech before a crowd of thousands that Gjakova was the “Srbrenica of the Albanian people” and that Meje was “now sacred ground for all Albanians.”

 

 

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League.

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