Six years have passed since the Republic of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008. This young country also has young citizens, with an average age of 25 years. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ahmet Shala, the ambassador to Japan of this country that is currently taking various actions for future economic development, about topics including the hardships experienced before independence, the lessons learned during that time, and future visions.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I held a dialogue with Sami Ukelli, the previous ambassador, in the past. How long has it been since you took up your new job in Japan?
Shala Today marks 15 full months.
Motoya Is that so? I am sure you’ve learned a great deal about Japan during this time.
Shala Yes, I know more than I did last year (laughs).
Motoya I assume you spent most of your time in Tokyo, but have you visited any other regions of Japan?
Shala Unfortunately, not a lot. I have been quite busy with daily work in my office and Tokyo. I have visited mainly well-known locations such as Kyoto, Hiroshima, Niigata, and Shizuoka. In Shizuoka I was able to see the beautiful scenery of Mt. Fuji. You should be proud of it.
Motoya There are APA Hotels in all of those regions (laughs). APA Hotel Fuji-Chuou will be opened as a franchise hotel in April of this year in Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Our hotel group includes approximately 230 APA Hotels across Japan, from Ishigaki Island in the south to Hokkaido in the north, with nearly 40,000 rooms. There are many franchise hotels and hotels we have acquired in rural areas such as Ishigaki Island, but most of the hotels in Tokyo were newly constructed and are owned by APA Group.
Shala Wow, congratulations! That is a great achievement. I definitely would like to stay at your hotels! Also, I invite you to build some in Kosovo and the region. I am sure that will be a good investment.
Motoya Boxing will be held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Three years from now we will finish APA Hotel Ryogoku-Ekimae, with 1,000 rooms, next to this venue. We are constructing four tower hotels at once, including APA Hotel Kabukicho-Tower (620 guest rooms), APA Hotel Shinagawa-Sengakuji-Ekimae (557 rooms), and APA Hotel Sugamo-Ekimae (529 rooms). They will be opened at the end of next year. We’ll be opening a series of hotels at a swift pace from now until next year.
Shala That’s great! What a fast pace. Again, congratulations!
Motoya After South Sudan, the Republic of Kosovo is the second newest country in the world. Almost six years have passed since Kosovo, which was an autonomous province, became independent in 2008. I am sure various hardships were experienced before that point.
Shala Yes, it’s true, a lot of things happened there. The Balkan Peninsula is a region where constant troubles took place, and we who live there have learned many things throughout history. The most important thing is that peace cannot be created from hatred – the only thing produced in this way is war. Over the last 15 years of freedom, and especially in the past years of independence, we have worked to abandon hatred and for everyone to move towards a new direction.
Motoya I agree. Japan is a country surrounded by ocean, so there have been comparatively few conflicts with surrounding nations. But Kosovo is a landlocked country, so I am sure that confrontation occurred due to various reasons such as ethnicity and religion. In contrast, because Japan has experienced little conflict, there is an exceedingly weak national consciousness regarding the Japanese people. I think Japanese people have unique qualities, however. Japan has interacted with other countries with magnanimous compassion as if it was dealing with its fellow countrymen or friends, which has resulted in its current relationships with China and South Korea.
Shala Well, you know the history of Japan much better than I. What I can say is that Kosovo is a very beautiful country, with a great people and beautiful nature. I truly believe that we are a nation gifted by God with all that a nation needs to have. I also think that the entire Balkan Peninsula is a great part of the world, with great potential. The problem is, at least during history, that some of its nations’ leaders never looked to their neighbors as neighbors, but more as enemies. That’s how they have “poisoned” their nations with hate and attacked their neighbors, not because of religious or racial differences, but mostly because of their nationalist economic interests and feelings of domination in the region. I believe that dark part of history is now gone, and hope it will be never repeated. We must behave in a way to create peace in that region.
Motoya I understand what you are saying, but I feel that we humans cannot live unless we fight each other in a struggle for existence. Japan, which has been protected by its seas, hasn’t thought in this way. However, the majority of people across the world believe they can survive only by gaining supremacy over other countries. China and South Korea incessantly attack Japanese people based on historical fabrications, such as the Nanking Massacre and comfort women issue. A South Korean comic about comfort women that is full of falsehoods has been accepted by a manga festival in France, but it was requested that a Japanese work that discusses this issue in a correct way be withdrawn. Lies are rapidly becoming true, and reality is being turned into falsehoods. In Nanking as well, the Japanese Army did not kill one civilian woman or child, yet China claims that 300,000 people were massacred. There were no comfort women that were forcibly transported by the Japanese Army, but South Korea continually says that 200,000 women were forcibly moved and made to serve as prostitutes. These outrageous allegations are being accepted by the international society, and these lies are becoming truths. Japan must not let this go by quietly; we must fight against it, just like takes place on the continent.
Shala The same sort of propaganda occurs on the Balkan Peninsula too. Unfortunately, our neighbor Serbia still continues telling untruths about Kosovo and its history. For a long period of time they have included a lot of negative propaganda against Kosovo even in their textbooks and in other propagandistic materials, and not only about Kosovo. This doesn’t help reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. We have an expression: “Repeat a lie 100 times and it becomes the truth.” Repeating this type of propaganda in a long period of time makes it a dangerous national platform – a very risky national program. The visionary leaders of Kosovo, Serbia, Japan, or any country in the world would do and should do everything that is possible to initiate, develop, and maintain excellent relations with their neighbors. Today more than ever before, this is a required attribution for any modern leader.
Motoya I agree entirely.
Motoya After former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down, there has been a new prime minister in Japan each year and repeated comprise has taken place. Consequently, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks the truth he is criticized as being right wing. I recently went to Taiwan and met with former President Lee Teng-hui. He said Japan should firmly declare that it will engage in combat if the Chinese army attacked the Senkaku Islands – we must not go along with the idea of joint control. This dialogue was also covered in Taiwanese newspapers. An ancient Roman proverb said, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” That is exactly what is happening. If Japan neglects these battle preparations and continues the cycle of compromise, a true war will occur.
Shala Well, I am too “fresh” here to understand the very complex situation of your region, but in most cases I don’t think that concession is a weakness; in fact it is rather a strength if it happens because of the strong desire for peace. To repeat myself, if any concessions take place, they happen just because of the strong desire for peace and prosperity. If Japan or whoever will grant concessions at certain times, it will display its strength throughout the world regarding how much you respect peace and that particular relation with that particular neighbor. Let me tell a story about our Mother Teresa, who you might know was born in Kosovo, and as you surely know was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Motoya I did not know that.
Shala Oh, yes. She was born in 1910 in a place called Shkup (Yskyp), which is the current Macedonian capital, but at that time was a Kosovo territory (Kosovo Vilayet). Let me go back to her message. During the 1970’s she was asked by an organizer to participate in a demonstration against the Vietnam War, and she answered, “No.” The organizer was very surprised – how can a person like Mother Teresa not demonstrate against the war – and asked her, “Could you please tell me why?” She answered, “My dear son, I will not come to participate against the war in Vietnam, or against any war in the world; but if you will invite me to participate in any demonstration for peace then I will even lead it.”
Motoya What does that mean?
Shala For me it means that the most important thing is your mindset. If you demonstrate for peace, “peace’ is the driving force, the word “peace” is the key word, and “peace” is the key feeling and objective. “Anti” sentiments that are just against something are not good. Our focus and determination should be peace.
Motoya I see. Rather than negative movements, we should carry out positive movements. In addition, there are many cases in which anti-war movements are schemes by another party. For example, people in Germany protested against the Pershing missile in the past, and the Soviet Union provided money for this movement. We should not be negligent in making great efforts to build peace, but we must also prize the words of Lee Teng-hi, who said we must display readiness to wage war.
Shala This is a good quote too, but fundamentally its core word is “war,” not “peace.”
Motoya I feel that Kosovo was able to become independent because of its stance of being willing to fight. There is one question I would like to ask you. President Josip Broz Tito ruled Yugoslavia during the Cold War without siding with the Soviet Union or the United States. How was he able to do that? I think he was able to keep a constantly neutral position amidst the conflict between East and West because he was a wonderful leader, which is how he avoided ethnic conflict as well.
Shala As you say, the world probably viewed Tito as a good leader. But still, although he was a very talented politician, inside the country he led a totalitarian regime and systems that, at least for us in Kosovo and some other parts of Yugoslavia, were very discriminatory.
Motoya Tito passed away in 1980. Ethnic and religious conflict broke out when the Cold War ended, and Kosovo – which was an autonomous province of Serbia – was able to gain independence after furious fighting.
Shala I would say that Yugoslavia was an artificial state (federation), which was created not based on the will of the people who lived there, but based on the circumstances of World War II and the will (force) of the larger party. Yugoslavia (1945-1989) for decades has served as a buffer zone between two blocks: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But after the end of the Cold War there was no longer any need for such a buffer zone. There is the saying, “No need, no aid.” When the Cold War ended there was no need to give aid and keep alive that artificial creation. Also, after Tito’s death Serbian nationalism has increased rapidly, led by Slobodan Milosevic and supported, unfortunately, by academia and the church. He steadily broke apart the systems that Tito had taken such pains to build, such as changing the constitution by military force, and breaking all laws and rules, to make Serbia the “center” of Yugoslavia. Kosovo strongly opposed this in the most peaceful and democratic manner. (Kosovo’s population at that time was composed of 92% Albanians, some 5% Serbians, and the rest other minorities). To oppose that anti-constitutional act of the Serbian regime, Kosovo’s Albanians declared independence in July 2, 1990, followed by Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Conversely, Serbia invoked its authority to banish Albanians from all public offices, from the government to kindergartens. It was a total apartheid. All schools, universities, TV stations, public offices, factories, etc. were “closed” to Kosovo Albanians. I, for example, was a university professor, but I was expelled by force out of my position with all of my university colleagues. My house was destroyed and later was burned. However, my wife and children, among millions of other people, were out of the country and lived as refugees in neighboring countries until the liberation in June 1999.
Motoya Kosovo’s independence movement intensified from that point on.
Shala Yes, it did. In fact, the dream, the struggle, and the fight for living free and independent from Serbia is much older. I think it lived with us always, but it is true that the desire and readiness to fight for it was never stronger than during the 90s. Initially we started in a very peaceful manner, with peaceful demonstrations and strikes led by our late President Ibrahim Rugova. But unfortunately it didn’t work out. The repression and persecution were increased day by day. The young generation in the mid-90s, including the current Prime Minister of Kosovo Hashim Thaci and led by our legendary Commander Adam Jashari, created the Kosovo Liberation Army (1992) to fight against the Serbian regime, which I would describe as fascist. But this guerilla movement was too weak to fight against the Serbian army and police force. After many massacres and millions of refugees (more than 50% of the population), the democratic world intervened, led by the U.S. and the main European countries. They ordered NATO intervention to stop the genocide at the heart of Europe. The Serbian regime capitulated on June 10, 1999. Kosovo was put under UN Administration (UNMIK). In 2005, under the UN and international community “umbrella,” the three years of negotiation between the Kosovo leaders and Serbian leaders was concluded with the coordinated declaration of independence of Kosovo by the Parliament of Kosovo on February 17, 2008. I feel blessed that I was member of the Kosovo Government (Minister of Finance and Economy) when this government, led by Prime Minister Thaci, declared independence. Just a few days after the declaration, many countries accepted and recognized Kosovo as an independent state. Among the very first were the U.S., UK, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Japan, and many more. Today we are recognized by 107 countries. Please allow me to say a big “Thank you” to all of these nations and their leadership for supporting us! And particularly to the Japanese people and its leadership: “Domo arigato gozaimashita!”
Motoya How old is Thaci right now?
Shala He is 45.
Motoya He’s like Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Shala No, sir. You cannot, and you should not, compare Thaci to Fidel Castro. His fight, engagement, and leadership are purely based on the democratic values and legitimate rights of freedom and human rights.
Motoya Did ethnic unity give power to people during the fight for independence, or was it the unity that comes from having the same religion?
Shala In the entire Albanian ethnic group, and particularly for the Kosovo Albanians, when national interests are in question the only important “label” is the national one – citizenship. Religion was and is a very secondary label. For your information, Albanians as a national ethnicity live in Albania (more than 95%), Kosovo (more than 92%), Macedonia (around 30%), Serbia (around 4%), Montenegro (more than 7%), and Greece (more than 5%). We did not fight under the flag or “label” of religion. We fought as a nation and as Kosovo citizens. Freedom doesn’t have any other label, except its own – liberty.
Motoya When was the awareness of Kosovo as a single country born?
Shala Kosovo was annexed by Serbia in 1913, as a result of the Balkan Wars in the early 20th century. At that time, some major world powers such as Russia and some European countries interfered, and Kosovo was made into a part of Serbia/Yugoslavia. The wars in the Balkans happened mainly because of the very strategic interests of Serbia and Russia to dominate that “European Gate,” and to even gain Kosovo’s minerals and the Adriatic Sea. Whoever gives any other label besides this, such as a religion or any other, is just using a very transparent “umbrella” to cover their acts. Kosovo is known for having very fertile land, and Serbia is very well-known for its bad territorial appetites during history.
Motoya In addition to ethnic groups and religions, the Balkan Peninsula is home to complex geopolitics. I understand why it used to be called the “powder magazine of Europe.” Almost six years have passed since independence – are the people of Kosovo happy?
Shala We are happy, but we would be much happier and freer if we would hear a genuine apology from our neighbor Serbia on what they have done to our people and our homeland during history, especially during the last war. But, in spite of this the Kosovo people and its leadership have extended the hand of reconciliation and forgiveness. Only those who apologize and forgive are free.
Motoya Why is the Kosovo people so young?
Shala This phenomena does have deep roots, but it’s mostly because of the very high birth rates and low age rate. Kosovo is roughly the same size as Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, and the population is similar as well at around 1.8 million people.
Motoya Is your currency the euro? What is the economic situation?
Shala Yes, we use the euro. The economy is a future issue; right now the annual rate of economic growth is around 5%. The amount of money remitted to Kosovo and investments by Kosovars who are living all over the world has increased, and foreign investors have started to consider Kosovo an attractive destination. We hope that more Japanese investors will come and position themselves in this emerging, fast-growing country in a very strategic part of the European market.
Motoya Those are good signs.
Shala We must urgently cultivate our industry. We are searching for investments from across the world right now and the opportunities are enormous. Again, I invite all Japanese businesses to consider Kosovo as their investment destination.
Motoya Do you have good relationships with your neighboring countries?
Shala We have excellent relations with our neighbors, except Serbia, which I hope and pray will get better in the near future.
Motoya Considering that, it sounds like the only country you are at bad terms with is Serbia.
Shala Yes, but I hope and encourage Serbia to revise its way of thinking and acting towards its neighbors. I also make a public call to all nations and states to take more positive stances towards their neighbors. This is the only way. All other ways, in the long run, lead to disaster, as you might see in some parts of the world.
Motoya Unlike the era in which the World Wars broke out, today territorial issues are no longer solved via military power. I think now is the era in which people engage in conversation and mutual persuasion to divide up territories. I feel like China is the only country that is still trying to expand its territory through armed might these days.
Shala I don’t know the details, but as a general rule and based on our experience, nobody will invest in this region if China, South or North Korea, Japan, or any other states were to engage in military conflict. I think the region would be impoverished for 30 to 50 years in the future, and would lose momentum in global development. That’s why peace is so important. Wars produce only negative heritages. Let me describe the Balkan experience to you. The war in the Balkans ended almost 20 years ago. But its image, here in Asia and around the world, is still an image of war. When I meet people here in Japan, the very first question they ask me is, “Is there peace now? Is it safe to come and visit that region?” Even if we insist that things are peaceful now, and so on, our past image turns people away from visiting and investing at the desired scale.
Motoya I understand well what you are saying, and I keenly feel the importance of maintaining peace. A balance of power must be maintained in East Asia for the sake of peace as well. Japan must not create opportunities through simple comprise for China to expand its power all at once in the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki Island, the main island of Okinawa, and Kyushu.
Shala A “mindset balance” is more powerful than a military balance. A military balance is an endless game, which will make your countries uncompetitive in many other areas. Your people will pay, through their taxes, money that will be invested in that military balance. The population will become poorer, arm producers will get richer, and some politicians will stay a little bit longer in their chairs, but not forever. On the other hand, the peaceful mindset is much more rational: less money for arms, more money for welfare and prosperity. The balance of power, as you call it, should be be maintained through economic force rather than armed force. When armaments races begin no one knows when they will end. Only peace brings economic growth, mutual investment, and win-win relationships.
Motoya That is the ideal. China, a nation ruled by a single political party, must unify its people to maintain the current system. It constantly creates external enemies for that reason, and continually acts in a provocative way. That’s why it is very dangerous for Japan to make concessions in this realm.
Shala We know a lot about communist regimes – we have experienced them keenly – and I pray for a smooth transition in China. I also believe in the Japanese people, and their strength and peaceful mind. If somebody is more tolerant and experiences more pain, that does not necessarily mean that he is weak or weaker. That is the sign of the strength of that person; he evaluates your relationship more than his ego. For him, peace and the relationship are more important than the target material gain.
Motoya I think Japan should have the same degree of mettle. In most cases, dictatorships end in tragedy. Things turned out well for Tito in that way, while Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu was publically executed. What happened to Milosevic?
Shala Yes, I think Tito was a lucky man because he died naturally. Milosevic died in prison during his trial process at the International Court of Justice as a war criminal. Some people think that he committed suicide.
Motoya That’s a wretched end.
Shala Yes, but may I change the topic a little bit? Enough with these historical stories. Let’s talk about the future and about Kosovo-Japan relations.
Motoya Sure, you are right. Let’s talk about the future. When will Prime Minister Thaci visit Japan?
Shala That’s nice topic to start with. We are working with your government to organize his visit this spring. He will come with a good team from the economic and business field. We are also preparing for the visit of Madam President H.E. Mrs. Atifite Jahjaga. Kosovo-Japan relations are very important to us, and there are so many opportunities for Japanese investors in Kosovo and the region. We will do our best to offer to you the best support possible.
Motoya I would like to meet them! I’ll provide suite rooms at APA Hotel & Resort Tokyo Bay Makuhari. A building with 500 more rooms will be opened on April 10.
Shala That’s wonderful! That is very kind of you. They prize patriotism and peace more than anything else, so I’m sure you’ll have much to talk about.
Motoya I think so. In my case, I also prize pride – one must live with a sense of pride.
Shala Oh, absolutely. There is no meaning to life without pride. That reminds me of something – a very good Japanese friend of mine told me a story on the five most important factors of a man’s life. He said, “First: air, second: clothing, third: food, fourth: shelter, and fifth: means of transportation.” I contested him this order, saying, “How can clothing be before food?” He smiled and said that he thought the same way until he was convinced differently. He asked me, “If you saw your daughter totally naked in the middle of a crowd, what you would do first? Would you first put some clothing on her, or would you offer her something to eat?” I immediately said, “I would put some clothing on her.” He said, “So?” Wow… I never thought about that. Dignity is such a powerful part of human life. There is no meaningful life without dignity, which is something that we have experienced during our past history.
Motoya There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Ishoku tarite reisetsu wo shiru,” which means that people can only be polite when their basic living needs are met. For example, prisoners of war are sometimes stripped of clothing to rob them of pride.
Shala That sort of thing happened multiple times during Kosovo’s fight for independence, not only to prisoners but to ordinary citizens too. And that hurts more than anything else. We must make sure that we never touch somebody’s dignity.
Motoya I agree. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Shala I am 53 years old, so in Kosovo I am a fairly old man. (He touches his almost-bald head and laughs.) Young people should have positive dreams and believe in their own future and the future of their own country. They should have pride and not feel ashamed of their actions. Japanese people should feel proud of their unique qualities, be confident in themselves, and take on multiple challenges that are ahead of them and all of us, but also be ready to change. The whole world is changing. Nothing is more constant than change. Those who will not change will be changed. Also, I would like them to fully realize that the Kosovo youth and entire Kosovo population respect and are grateful to Japanese people. They should know that they are the best model in the world for the Kosovo population – humble, patient, hardworking, and disciplined – something that you should not change, but cultivate even more and spread to the world. I would like to take this opportunity to invite them to come visit Kosovo and learn about how this country has overcome hardship. And, I would like them to see how the best quote of our beloved Mother Teresa – “Love until it hurts and there will be no more hurt, there will be only more love” – is implemented on a daily basis by the people of Kosovo in their new vision for peace and prosperity.
Motoya I visited Kosovo when it was still Yugoslavia. I don’t remember exactly where I visited, but everyone was living peacefully. When I think of what happened to those people after the war… War should not be waged. That’s why Japan must make sufficient preparations.
Shala Again, you should prepare yourself more for peace, not for war. In that way peace will be with you and with others who surround you.
Motoya Thank you very much for joining me today.
Shala Thank you for giving me the exceptional pleasure and privilege to address the Japanese and international audience through your very wonderful magazine. Domo arigato gozaimashita!
Born in 1961 in Kosovo. In 1985 he earned his master’s degree in Business Administration from Prishtina University in Kosovo, and in 1995 he earned his doctorate for research on strategic development. From 1985 he worked in the foreign trade department of a mining company, but he established metal trade and soft drink production companies in 1990. In addition, he was a lecturer at Prishtina University from 1988 to 2008. Shala has served in a series of important positions since 2000, including deputy head of the Department for Trade and Industry. He was appointed as the Minister of Finance and Economy when Kosovo became independent in 2008, and has held his current position since 2012.