The Pristina-Damascus Connection

Cited by Seyward Darby, Transitions Online

PRISTINA | A few weeks ago, three Syrian opposition activists arrived in this small Balkan capital for a short visit. The trio stayed in a hotel downtown – “nothing fancy,” according to one of the activists – and met with various local dignitaries, including Kosovo’s foreign minister, advisers to the president, and the mayor of Pristina.

The visit did not garner much media attention, certainly not overseas, save an Associated Press article that made the rounds through a couple of outlets. The lone exception, it seems, was in Russia, which opposes both Kosovo’s independence and international intervention in Syria. There, the story took off, but in an unexpected direction. A few days after the visit, Kremlin mouthpiece RT ran an article with the headline “Syrian Opposition Studies Terror Tactics in Kosovo.” It jumped on the notion of the Syrian opposition meeting with a government populated partly by former fighters, including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, once a key member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which for a time was classified internationally as a terrorist organization. Soon after the article ran, at a special session of the UN Security Council, Russian representative Vitaly Churkin insisted there was evidence Kosovo had established training camps for Syrian opposition fighters. “[T]urning Kosovo into an international drilling ground where the militants of paramilitary formations would get training might become a serious destabilizing factor,” Churkin said.

In fact, there is no evidence any such camps exist, or that Kosovo would or even could support them for numerous reasons, political and otherwise. “We don’t engage in opening training camps for militants from Syria or anywhere,” Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi said in an interview. Ammar Abdulhamid, one of the three Syrian activists who visited Kosovo, called Russia’s claims “bogus and baseless.” He noted that Pristina offered Kosovo only “as a quiet meeting place away from the spotlight that comes with gathering in larger capitals, such as Istanbul or Cairo.”

Russia’s accusations aside, an important question remains: Why, exactly, would Kosovo want to play host to the Syrian opposition? According to several sources, the goal of the recent visit was straightforward: to discuss what Syria’s movement could learn from Kosovo – that is, from a place that, in the span of only a few years, went from fighting against an oppressive government to spurring a NATO intervention in 1999 to governing itself. And this learning process, it seems, is meant to be ongoing, with Kosovo’s door remaining open to the Syrian opposition as it continues its struggle.

To be sure, despite countless media comparisons, those who took part in the recent visit say Kosovo’s experience could not map directly onto Syria’s. Yet there is a sense here in Kosovo that the country has a unique role to play vis-à-vis the Syrian opposition – and perhaps other opposition groups around the world. “[Kosovo has] experience living under a regime that is concerned almost zero percent about human rights. So I believe that Kosovars have a deep understanding about this and the will to get out of such regimes – felt in their own skin sort of thing,” said Shpend Kursani, a researcher at the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development.

This helps explain why, despite its own ongoing trials of nation-building and controversial status on the world stage, Kosovo has been a vocal supporter of recent efforts to toss out and punish bad regimes. In August, the same month it recognized the National Transitional Council of Libya as that country’s government, Pristina issued a statement of support for the Syrian opposition. “President Assad has lost the right to govern the country,” the statement read. In May, Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj reiterated his country’s stance: “We were among the first governments in Europe who was supporting the opposition in Libya and in other Arab countries last year, because we were fighting for the same aspirations, for the same values.” Moreover, although he did not mention Syria specifically, Prime Minister Thaci penned an editorial for Foreign Policy in late April, on the heels of President Barack Obama’s announcement of a U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board, confirming his country’s commitment to preventing human suffering at the hands of the state. “When I think about mass atrocities, the most vivid images that come to mind are those of my own countrymen and women. … And when I think about how to prevent such tragedies, it seems clear that America cannot do it alone, … ” Thaci wrote.

So in many ways, Kosovo’s invitation to Syrian activists was not surprising. It was issued by the Foreign Policy Club, a think tank established in 2008, the same year Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, to recommend foreign policy for the new country. According to the FPC’s Venhar Nushi, the recent visit – in addition to Abdulhamid, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurdish National Council attended – was planned so that his country could share both moral support and the lessons it has learned about liberation and governance. “Why not help people?” Nushi asked. “Everyone who fights for a democratic country … Kosovo will support.”

In a series of meetings over three days, the activists were told how, when they were resisting Serbian authority in the 1990s, Kosovars set up and funded parallel institutions, or governing entities that operated independently of the Serbian government. In a move that may have helped trigger Russia’s ire, the visitors also met with former KLA soldiers to discuss the process of transforming guerilla fighters into peacemakers. “Our conflict may be far from over, but it’s never too early to think about issues of national reconciliation,” Abdulhamid said.

Significantly, the activists also visited the eastern town of Gjakova, which was devastated in the Kosovo war; many physical structures were damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of people from the town remain missing. According to Nushi, the activists said the town reminded them of Homs, the besieged Syrian city. Moreover, in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, where only last week local Serbs clashed with NATO troops who remain stationed in the country, Kosovo shared one of its many “mistakes,” Nushi said, indicating that more could have been done to ensure the city’s unity.

Of course, a key ingredient in Kosovo’s separation from Serbia was the international community – and here, matters get a bit sticky. Abdulhamid said “how the international community was successfully lobbied to come on the side of intervention” was discussed during the visit. Yet as Kursani noted, “[O]n the international stage, Kosovo supports whatever the United States supports.” So until Washington actively backs intervention in Syria, Kosovo is unlikely to. (A senior government official confirmed that the same goes for Kosovo’s stance with respect to the European Union: “Kosovo is seeking EU membership and is very careful in public statements in disputed areas in the world.”)

Still, while it may not carry the cache (or the cash) of a major power, Kosovo feels it has something to offer when it comes to Syria and other similar situations. “Kosovo is … an example for politicians around the world, that when there’s a will, there’s a way to help people,” Selimi said. “We don’t have big muscles, but with small things, we can do a lot,” Nushi added.

And it seems Kosovo will not go unrewarded for its efforts. To date, more than 90 countries have recognized Kosovo, with Chad joining the bunch this month. But most, including five European Union members, have not. “After throwing out Assad, we’ve been told they [the Syrian opposition] will recognize Kosovo as an independent state,” Nushi said.