Kosovo wins international recognition … at the Olympics
Despite deadlock in the political arena, the Balkan country is putting itself on the map through sport.
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.”