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Heads up – Embassy 21 – December 2009

Rebel with a cause

In 1999, Muhamet Hamiti was on the run from the Serbian security forces, a fugitive of Kosovo's liberation movement during the Kosovo war. Now, a decade later, Hamiti is Kosovo's first Ambassador to London.

His appointment marks the culmination of the Ambassador's long involvement in Kosovo's freedom struggle. A one-time professor of English literature, he was spurred to join with Dr Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo in 1991 after Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy, dissolved the institutions and sacked Albanian public servants - including the Ambassador – from their jobs.

In response, the ethnic Albanian community established parallel institutions including an underground parliament. The Ambassador continued his day job as an English teacher at the makeshift Albanian-run University of Prishtina, an act of passive resistance that saw him arrested by the police. He was also editor-in-chief of the Kosova Information Center, started to keep the world informed of the situation in Kosovo.

"Our aim from the start was to find a political, peaceful settlement to the Kosovo issue and to ensure that our dignity as a nation was respected," he explains.

The campaign of resistance led by the 'Gandhi of the Balkans', Dr Ibrahim Rugova, continued throughout the Balkan wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But when the settlement of Kosovo's status was ignored in the Dayton Accords, the frustration caused many Kosovars to take up arms, says the Ambassador.

Serbian military and paramilitary forces cracked down hard, prompting Nato to intervene in its first-ever war to stop the ethnic cleansing of half the population of Kosovo, including Hamiti.

"The plight of the Kosovar Albanians has been ignored throughout history, but 10 years ago we were not ignored. And we are a nation that is most grateful for what the world has done for us," says Hamiti.

But after the war, much work was needed to transform the dream of an independent Kosovo into reality. "Kosovo had to evolve from having an undefined, uncertain status, to a supervised independence and eventually to full independence."

During that time, the Ambassador worked closely as the media adviser and spokesman for President Rugova. Following his death, Hamiti was appointed a senior political adviser to President Fatmir Sejdiu and was a member of the delegation negotiating the final status of Kosovo, under the chairmanship of UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari.

"It was a long, arduous process in which every aspect of the future Kosovo state was discussed," he recalls. But Serbia rejected the deal and Russia withdrew its support for the Ahtisaari Plan, prompting the Kosovar parliament to unilaterally declare independence.

"Russia used Serbia as a pawn in its showdown with the West - effectively giving Serbia veto rights at the Security Council," shrugs the Ambassador. "So now we have to obtain recognition the hard way."

So far, 63 countries have recognised Kosovo's independence and Kosovo is also the only non-UN member to be a member of the World Bank and IMF. "The drive for recognition has gone well but we would have wished it to be speedier," says Hamiti, who adds that London is the ideal diplomatic hub to continue the campaign.

"But it's not just a numbers game – we want to establish meaningful bilateral relations, trade with nations and work together on mutual interests."

Recognition has been hesitant because some countries – particularly those with separatist movements – believe Kosovo sets a dangerous precedent. Serbia has sought an advisory opinion from the ICJ about the legality of the independence declaration, at which some of these countries have given presentations this month.

But the Ambassador rejects their arguments, saying the case of Kosovo does not compare: "Yugoslavia was a federation in name, but a confederation in practice, which was dissolved in blood. Our borders follow the borders of ex-Yugoslavia, the same as the other federal entity boundaries, which are now the borders of the successor states. Our independence marks the final, logical end of the dissolution of Yugoslavia."

Hamiti also refutes the notion that Kosovo has always been an integral part of Serbia, citing examples throughout history where it has had a special status.

"Our territory has been annexed and occupied, but there is not a single credible document in history which shows that a representative body in Kosovo has willingly joined Serbia. Even the name Yugoslavia was alienating for us, because it means the land of the 'southern Slavs' when the overwhelming majority of people in Kosovo are Albanian."

Concerns about the Serb minority in Kosovo are unfounded, he says, adding the Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo guarantees human, political and cultural rights and privileges for Serbs as well as representation in the parliament and local authorities.

Ambassador concludes that Kosovo's independence is the best guarantee of peace in the region: "It is time to let go of our shared painful past and enter a new future in the European family."

Reflecting on the achievements of the past two decades, Ambassador Hamiti says: "I was part of a popular movement which opposed occupation and dictatorship and created the foundations for a peaceful, pluralistic society in Kosovo. That makes me very happy." Ever the activist, he can't resist adding: "But we have more work to do."

HE Mr Muhamet Hamiti

"It is time to let go of our shared painful past and enter a new future in the European family"

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