Kosovo's prime minister is no stranger to the spotlight.
Ramush Haradinaj, the 49-year-old former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, is in his second tour as the country's premier. His first ended when he resigned to face international war crime charges that resulted from a bloody conflict that pitted Albania and ethnic Kosovars against Serbia in the 1990s. (He was acquitted.)
Haradinaj returned to power in September and was in Washington last week to mark the 10th anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence — and to trumpet his government's relationship with the United States. But the young, Muslim-majority republic faces serious challenges: high unemployment, trouble with neighbors and Islamist extremism.
In 1999, the United States, under President Bill Clinton, supported NATO intervention siding with Albania and ethnic Kosovars against Serbia, which, led by Slobodan Milosevic, waged an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim minority. When that operation ended, Kosovo was placed under United Nations control before it declared independence in 2008.
President George W. Bush was among the first world leaders to recognize the nascent state. Both men are commemorated with streets and monuments in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
Kosovo's transition to independence has not been smooth. As Europe's newest country, it is also the continent's youngest, with more than 70 percent of the population under the age of 35 and unemployment over 20 percent. Haradinaj also acknowledges the challenge that Islamic extremism poses to a country where more than 95 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, by far the highest rate in Europe, although Kosovar society and governance are secular.
Since gaining its independence, Kosovo has been recognized by only 111 of the United Nations' member states. Absent among them are Russia, China and, perhaps most importantly, five European Union member states, effectively blocking a potential bid by Kosovo to join the continental alliance.
As Kosovo struggles to find its way in its second decade, Haradinaj is looking to fortify the historic bond he says his country feels toward the United States. Both Pristina and Washington hold to the belief that Kosovo’s struggle for independence and eventual statehood, with the support of the international community, is a success story of both diplomatic and military intervention by the United States.
Haradinaj is a compelling character. His first term as prime minister was cut short in 2005 after only three months when he resigned and voluntarily surrendered himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face war crime charges brought against him by Serbia. Haradinaj is the only sitting prime minister to willingly submit himself to an international judicial process.
He was acquitted on all charges. Twice.
A soft-spoken man from an influential farming family, he is a one-time bouncer turned freedom fighter who speaks fluent English and presents a nuanced approach to tackling the issues of today’s world.
As Kosovo looks to move beyond its war-torn past, Haradinaj sat down with The Washington Post to reflect on his country's 10 years of independence, the bond Kosovars feel with the United States and the challenges his country faces. (The interview below has been edited and condensed.)
WorldViews: This is your first official visit to Washington. What brought you here now?
Ramush Haradinaj: For Kosovo, Washington is the address. For any big decisions in the Balkans, we need Washington’s role. And we have unfinished business. The fact that Kosovo and Serbia haven’t recognized each other is still an open piece of business that needs to be resolved.
WV: Is the Trump administration showing an adequate understanding of the Balkans and Kosovo’s needs?
RH: With the change of administration, there is always some time lost. But now I have the impression that everything is settled, and there is a focus on the Balkans and a focus on Kosovo. It’s my understanding that the people around the president are very aware of Kosovo and at the State Department there’s a new team, and I see a new energy at the NSC and in Congress. But there was a period of time when we were concerned about the focus from here toward Kosovo and our region.
WV: How do the people of Kosovo regard the U. S.? Is the attitude still positive?
RH: Yes, that's forever. It’s a unique experience of a nation that the lives of everybody were threatened, and you were helped at such a critical time. This is very unique. We don’t blame the others, but we recognize this friendship and we’re stronger for it.
WV: Majority-Muslim countries are not always identified with secularism, but Kosovo's history is a secular one. Can you be an example for other mostly Muslim societies?
RH: The Muslim religion is present in our lives and the majority of our population is Muslim, but it's a very original kind of Islam that I think is very different than what we see in other nations. Religion is valued, but we don't impose it on other parts of life. Democracy and the rights of women in particular are respected. I hope other nations find their way out of fundamentalism, which is a danger for everyone.
WV: Are threats from the Islamic State and other extremist groups a source of great concern for your government?
RH: They were very aggressive toward us for at least the last decade. We are fully committed to face it. But yes, the Islamic State, from its early forms from al-Qaeda were very proactive toward our country and our young people. But now I think we’re at the level of doing our job as a country to fight it.
WV: How are you dealing with your difficult recent past of the last two decades?
RH: We are prepared to forgive, but not forget. We suffered a lot. For us it’s very precious to live in peace. We know the value of peace. We know the value of life. Of living free and in peace. I myself went through both. I’ve been through the atrocities of war. I lost members of my family. And I went through legal consequences after the war under international law. We are fully interested in living in peace. We have a sympathy for people who spread the light of democracy and freedom.
WV: Does the media in Kosovo operate freely? Can people express their ideas and concerns freely?
RH: There’s always more to do for free media. Fortunately there is a foundation and an acceptance of the important role of media by everybody. But we’re a young nation with a young media and we have to learn. Now there is another problem, which is fake news, the inflation of all sorts of news by social media, so let’s see how we handle it. But we accept the role of free media in our society.
WV: As you reflect on and celebrate 10 years of independence, what is the message that Kosovo wants to send to the world?
RH: We have learned to be ourselves. We survived a decade with challenges, mistakes and successes. We’re prepared now for our journey into the future. And we’re reminded of the sacrifices of our people. The lives that have been lost. And we’re thankful for the support and help of free nations, led by the U.S.