Kosovo wins international recognition … at the Olympics

Despite deadlock in the political arena, the Balkan country is putting itself on the map through sport.

Kosovo wins international recognition … at the Olympics

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Call it judo diplomacy.

Kosovo, the Balkan nation that tends to produce some of the region’s most intractable problems, has instead been gaining attention in recent days for its judo champions at the Tokyo Olympics.

Millions watched last week as two Kosovo women, Nora Gjakova and Distria Krasniqi, claimed gold medals in their weight categories. While two golds may be no big deal for Olympic behemoths like China or the U.S., it’s the type of accomplishment that can vault a small country like Kosovo into the international spotlight — and help change its reputation.

The triumphs have put Kosovo among the top countries at the Tokyo Olympics when it comes to gold medals won per head of population.

“Victories like this make us forget we’re small and make us good enough to fight against the big leagues,” said Kushtrim Krasniqi, the head of Kosovo’s Olympic committee, speaking on the phone from Tokyo.

And that’s exactly what Kosovo is trying to do on multiple fronts. The country has been waging a multi-year campaign to gain international recognition as an independent nation — and ultimately join major organizations like the U.N. and EU. Currently, around 100 countries recognize Kosovo’s independence but the drive to join the U.N. has effectively hit a wall, due to opposition from wartime enemy Serbia and its allies, such as Russia.

Reluctance in Serbia to recognize Kosovo was reflected in news reports on the victories, featuring headlines such as “So-called Kosovo Wins Gold in Tokyo” and referring to the country as “Serbia’s southern province” — despite Kosovo and Serbia competing against one another and being awarded scores separately.

Serbia’s public broadcaster RTS abruptly interrupted its broadcast of the match in which Gjakova won the gold medal, claiming to lack crew on the ground. “We run all the matches and medal wins, even those of self-proclaimed Kosovo,” entertainment news editor Olivera Kovačević told Radio Free Europe.

EU membership for Kosovo looks a very distant prospect. EU-sponsored talks to produce a permanent settlement between Kosovo and Serbia as a step on the long road to joining the bloc have been going nowhere for years.

However, Kosovo has had more success gaining entry to major sporting organizations, such as football’s FIFA and UEFA and the International Olympic Committee.

The country’s Tokyo champions are following in the footsteps of another Kosovo judo star, Majlinda Kelmendi, who won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and was Kosovo’s first World Judo Champion after it declared independence in 2008.  

“Our politicians should use sport as the best political tool when operating in the international sphere,” Krasniqi said. “Majlinda Kelmendi gets mentioned in the U.N. Security Council. The athletes and the talent from the country should send the message that Kosovo deserves to become part of international organizations.”

Struggle over citizenship

When Kelmendi began competing internationally around 10 years ago, she would get banned from participating in events because of her citizenship.

“Even when I was the world champion in 2014, and everyone knew I was the leading candidate for Olympic gold, I still got refused participation in so many countries,” Kelmendi told POLITICO from Tokyo. “Just getting them to allow the Kosovo flag or play the anthem was a massive challenge.”

Kelmendi recalled her participation being revoked mere days before tournaments, or only being given the choice of competing under the International Olympic Committee flag — an offer she would refuse, even after months of preparation. 

“I had to experience what it was like to be refused, pushed away and ignored — no matter how good you are,” she said. “I felt this on my skin over and over again.”

For much of the 20th century, Serbia ruled Kosovo — whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian — as a province. During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Kosovo pushed for independence from Serbia. The move led to oppressive measures being imposed against the ethnic Albanian population, culminating in a war in 1998 and 1999.

The Serbian military and political presence withdrew from Kosovo after a NATO bombing campaign in 1999. Since then, Kosovo has occupied a gray zone, nationhood-wise.

Until declaring its independence in 2008, Kosovo was Europe’s only U.N. protectorate. And to this day, the U.N. mission in the country still mediates between Kosovo institutions and countries or international bodies that do not recognize it.

“As much as I tried to stay away from political issues and keep reiterating that I’m only here for the sports, the persistent political challenges Kosovo faces would keep distracting me,” Kelmendi recalled. 

“Both I and my trainer had to be extremely strong,” she added, referring to Driton Kuka, who has coached her from a young age. “The challenges we faced just made us stronger. This shows how persistent Kosovars have to be as a nation.”

Kuka is also familiar with politics getting in the way of sports.

He showed promise as a judo competitor in Yugoslavia and participated in international competitions. Yet after being selected for the Yugoslav Olympic team in 1992, he dropped out in a show of solidarity with the ethnic Albanians who were facing increasing isolation in Kosovo.

After the conflict, Kuka turned his dream of being a champion into a drive to produce champions.

All three Kosovar gold medalists share a hometown, Peja, and a coach, Kuka. In fact, they all live around 300 meters from the dojo where they train. Peja is Kosovo’s westernmost city and is surrounded by steep mountains and deep gorges that stretch along its border with Albania.

“People from Peja are extremely persevering and determined,” said Virtyt Gacaferri, a longtime sports journalist who at one point handled communications for Kosovo’s judo team. “Historically it was the biggest city on the Accursed Mountains, making the population very resistant.”

He said Kosovo’s acceptance into the International Olympic Committee in 2014 “was one of the most significant memberships the country achieved internationally.”

The decision made it easier for Kosovar politicians to lobby for acceptance elsewhere.

“Soon after, FIFA and UEFA followed,” Gacaferri said. “It provided the citizens of Kosovo — who are otherwise faced with so many disappointments in terms of international acknowledgment — the opportunity to participate.”

Now, Gacaferri predicted, “when one of our diplomats meets with a foreign counterpart, they’re going to say: ‘Of course, I’ve heard of Kosovo, you guys are really good at judo.’ There’ll be a conversation beyond the outstanding issues with Serbia or the wartime period.”

Source : Politico EU More   

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In Ethiopia, echoes of Yugoslavia

We've seen this story before. This time we should make sure it has a different ending.

In Ethiopia, echoes of Yugoslavia

Arminka Helić is a member of the British House of Lords and served as special adviser to Foreign Secretary William Hague from 2010 to 2014

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently said that his country is “facing an enemy which is the cancer of Ethiopia.” He drew a chilling distinction between Tigrayan Ethiopians and others in the country, describing “the children of Ethiopia” as “wheat” and his Tigrayan opponents as “invasive weeds,” who “must be uprooted in a manner that will never grow again.” 

Thirty years ago, in the country of my birth, Yugoslavia, similar dehumanizing language was a prelude to ethnic cleansing and genocide. No two countries or conflicts are the same. But the parallels with Yugoslavia make me fearful for the people of Ethiopia: for those suffering violence, and for those in whose name it is being carried out. 

Like Ethiopia today, Yugoslavia was a large, multiethnic state with a recent history of dictatorship, going through a period of political change. Attempts to turn Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia (and some of it into a Greater Croatia) by force failed — but only after four years of war, genocide and the disintegration of the country. Thirty years on, I look at Ethiopia and fear that history could repeat itself. 

The war in Yugoslavia began slowly, but deliberately. Politicians whipped up nationalism to drive their careers, and embraced war and genocide to “protect” their people as the ultimate expression of that nationalism. The machinery of a federal Yugoslav state was turned against a section of the population who were deemed “wrong,” and the armed forces were used to kill the very people they were meant to protect. 

Fighting began in one region and spread to others. Atrocities fueled further atrocities. The international community, initially silent, eventually stepped in and froze the war — but only after they had proved at best incapable, at worst actively harmful, throughout the preceding four years. Yugoslavia disintegrated into five nations. Today, after further conflict, the region is made up of seven nations — and it is still riven by tension and nationalist aspirations. 

There has now been fighting in Tigray for nine months. In that time, we have heard horrific reports of atrocities, massacres, looting and systematic sexual violence. Humanitarian aid access is deliberately impeded, and there are signs that hunger is being purposefully inflicted as a weapon to starve Tigrayans into submission. 

Abiy’s words are a warning that the conflict could yet get worse. They incite Ethiopians to turn against Tigrayans — “to uproot them.” He targets his invective at a “junta,” but his language of wheat and weeds appears to cast all Tigrayans as inferior. 

He knows what he is suggesting is brutal: He says “Even though we are united as to our end, there may be arguments about the means.” But he is determined: “The children of Ethiopia have identified their enemy. And they know what to do. And they will do it.” The military operation in Tigray is no longer being presented as just a police operation, but as a whole-nation effort to eliminate a mortal threat — a threat defined on the basis of ethnicity. 

Just as fighting in Yugoslavia spread to encompass the different nations that made up the state, so are there signs of Ethiopia’s other regions and its neighbors being drawn in to the conflict there. Eritrean soldiers and Amhara ethnic militias have been active in Tigray throughout the conflict, possibly committing some of the worst atrocities, and the Tigray Defence Forces have spoken of taking the fight to them in Eritrea and Amhara. 

Tigrayan forces recently entered the neighboring region of Afar, with the stated intention of “degrading enemy fighting capabilities.” As Yugoslavia showed, once war begins, it becomes increasingly hard to contain. Your enemy is your enemy, wherever they are. Much of the conflict in Yugoslavia stemmed from jockeying for power in a collapsing nation. In Ethiopia, sporadic interethnic violence is not unknown. It is not hard to imagine the war in Tigray, and the weakening of the central state it is causing, opening a space for further conflict. 

In the 1990s, as Yugoslavia was torn apart, Western nations proved unwilling to act until it was too late. In Ethiopia today, we can see signs of the same inaction. The country’s size and importance — the reason why conflict there could be so devastating — is holding us back, with governments, including ours in the United Kingdom, seemingly averse to the risk of damaging trade ties or relations with an important partner and regional lynchpin. 

Likewise, the African Union has not been able to speak or act as effectively as the crisis deserves: Its headquarters are in Addis Ababa, and Ethiopia holds considerable sway on crucial bodies like the Peace and Security Council. Vestigial memories of Abiy’s Nobel Peace Prize from only two years ago may still cause some people to hope that there will be a peaceful resolution. 

But when a prime minister speaks of his opponents as weeds and cancer, when rape and famine are deployed as weapons, and when a nation seems to be on a path that could lead to collapse, it is not possible to maintain normal relations. Our government and the international community should set aside, for now, the pursuit of deeper trade links with the Abiy government and accept that the hard work of conflict diplomacy is required. 

We should support the African Union, and should seek to forge a common position behind them with the United States and the European Union, in order to help the different warring parties toward peace — and pull Ethiopia back from the brink. We should be prepared to use sanctions to back up that diplomacy, if it does not produce results — as the U.S. has already done. 

The war in Yugoslavia began with speeches, political disputes and minor clashes. It continued, and grew, in part because of international inaction. It is time for the international community to step up and mount a more concerted diplomatic effort to secure peace in Ethiopia. It is never too late to learn the lessons of history. 

Source : Politico EU More   

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