The Republic of Kosovo, which became independent 13 years ago, is the newest European country. It is also an extremely young nation with an average citizen age of roughly 37 years old. Toshio Motoya spoke with Arbër Mehmeti, who just took up his post as chargé d’affaires ad interim of the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo in Japan in March, about the history and political structure of Kosovo (which has close ties to Japan) as well as its sightseeing spots, future prospects, and other topics.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I don’t think many Japanese people know very much about the Republic of Kosovo, and I invited you here so you can teach us about your country.
(Me) Thank you very much for this opportunity to talk about Kosovo. Kosovo is an independent state since February 2008 and is the youngest state on the European continent. Two months ago we marked the 13th anniversary of our independence. Kosovo’s relations with Japan are excellent; Japan recognized Kosovo immediately after the declaration of independence, and the support of the government and people of Japan for Kosovo has never stopped. Through its embassy in Pristina and Chargé d’Affaires ad Interim Mitsunori Ogasawara, Japan is quite active through numerous projects in Kosovo. Also, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and many other Japanese institutions have implemented a large number of projects that have improved the lives of Kosovo citizens. Recently Japan has also supported Kosovo in the fight against the global pandemic, COVID-19.
(Mo) So there is a good relationship between the two countries. I would definitely like to visit someday.
(Me) I’m happy to hear that. We would make all necessary preparations for your visit, and you wouldn’t have to worry about anything since my colleagues and I would be your guides for the whole trip.
(Mo) Thank you! People have the impression that many conflicts occur in the Kosovo region. Of course this isn’t actually happening today, and I think more Japanese tourists could travel there with peace of mind if you further publicized the real situation in Kosovo. When we study world history in Japan, we learn that the Balkans were called the “powder keg of Europe” in the early 20th century. As this term suggests, World War I started when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated by a Serbian man in Sarajevo. I think this left a big impression. Would you please start by telling us about Kosovo’s modern history, ethnic groups, and religion, including the fact that it was originally part of Yugoslavia?
(Me) Sure, let me first remind you that Kosovo marked the 21st anniversary of its liberation last June. This means it has already been over 21 years since the end of the war, so Kosovo is now a completely safe and peaceful country. Since 2017, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan rates Kosovo as a safe country to travel, as listed in its Overseas Travel Safety Information (before measures against the pandemic). I am happy to inform you that the number of Japanese tourists visiting Kosovo has increased significantly, and we expect the number of Japanese visitors will continue to rise after the end of the global COVID-19 pandemic. As for the history, after the break-up from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Slobodan Milosevic regime from 1998 to 1999 unleashed a brutal police and military campaign against the civilian Kosovo population, which was only ended by a NATO bombing campaign and economic sanctions. Kosovo declared its independence on February 17, 2008. In its declaration of independence, Kosovo committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Ahtisaari Plan, and to embrace multi-ethnicity as a fundamental principle of good governance. Kosovo’s independence is recognized by a majority of European and world states, including the United States, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Turkey, etc.
(Mo) So there are no conflicts occurring today.
(Me) That’s right, Kosovo is already a safe, peaceful, and hospitable place for tourists and potential investors from Japan and also from all over the world. Kosovo has a very young and healthy population; it is the country with the youngest population in all of Europe. To illustrate this, the president of Kosovo is 38 years old. Also, most young citizens of Kosovo speak at least one foreign language in addition to their native language. English, German, and French are the second most-spoken languages in Kosovo.
(Mo) You are very young as well. How long have you been a diplomat?
(Me) After graduating from university and after a period of internship, I had the honor to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo. After more than four years of work in the ministry, I was appointed to serve my country in Japan. It’s been over four years since I came to Tokyo.
(Mo) It sounds like young people are doing great things in your country.
(Me) At the Embassy of Kosovo in Tokyo, together with our colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kosovo, we aimed to focus on increasing tourism from Japan to Kosovo. We can do this by introducing Kosovo as much as possible to the Japanese public. My interview here with you for your well-known magazine, Apple Town, is an opportunity to do so. As I mentioned, the number of tourists from Japan to Kosovo has increased in recent years. We are working so this number of tourists continues to grow, and I am very optimistic that now is the time to move to another level of relations between Kosovo and Japan. I am talking about economic cooperation. With its geographic position and very attractive policies for foreign investments, Kosovo can be the ideal destination for investments and businesses from Japan that aim to reach the European market.
(Mo) That’s wonderful.
(Mo) What are the main religions in Kosovo?
(Me) Kosovo is a secular state with no state religion; freedom of belief, conscience, and religion is explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution of Kosovo. Kosovan society is strongly secularized, and it is ranked first in Southern Europe and ninth in the world as free and equal for tolerance towards religion and atheism. The three main religions in Kosovo are Islam (the majority of the population), Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, which have long coexisted in Kosovo.
(Mo) Are there any Assembly members chosen by religion-based parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood?
(Me) Kosovo is a multi-party parliamentary representative democratic republic. The prime minister of Kosovo is the head of government, and the president of Kosovo is the head of state. As the governmental coalition changes, political participation in Kosovo shifts. Political parties in Kosovo run in parliamentary elections on promises of economic development opening new jobs for young people, European integration, promises to lower or change taxes, etc. Kosovo political parties do not define their political identity through religion.
(Mo) Do you have a military?
(Me) The Kosovo Security Force (KSF) is the military of Kosovo, tasked with territorial protection and crisis response operations in Kosovo and abroad. In December 2018, the Assembly of Kosovo passed legislation to redefine the KSF as a professional military force and to establish a defense ministry.
(Mo) I would like to travel to Kosovo. What are the must-see sightseeing spots?
(Me) Great, this is good news! Kosovo has a rich culture and ancient history, and all my Japanese friends who have visited Kosovo felt greatly impressed and wanted to visit again. In Kosovo you can visit forts that are thousands of years old in the beautiful city of Prizren, a city that I like to call the “Kyoto of Kosovo.” You can visit the Gjakova alleys that are full of handicrafts and are very similar to the narrow alleys in many cities of Japan. You can visit Pristina and see the museums of Kosovo to get acquainted with the history and culture of our country. Religious objects are also interesting; we have mosques dating from the time of the Ottoman Empire, the cathedral of St. Teresa in Pristina, and monasteries that are also on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list.
(Mo) I’d love to see the mosques and castles.
(Me) Definitely, when you visit Kosovo you will have the opportunity to visit castles and mosques of your choice.
(Mo) Which is older, Prizren or Pristina?
(Me) That’s an interesting question. In fact, both cities have a rich history and cultural heritage, however in this case I would say that Prizren is older.
(Me) The National Library of Kosovo is one of the most striking buildings in Pristina. It has a distinctive look with many domes on the roof and wire-adorned walls. The inside is modern as well, with a design that directly lets light into the reading rooms.
(Mo) Who designed it?
(Me) It was designed by Andrija Mutnjaković, a Croatian architect, and opened in 1982.
(Mo) You wouldn’t think it is almost 40 years old, since it looks so modern.
(Me) The National Museum of Kosovo is located in an 18th-century, Austro-Hungarian-inspired building in Pristina. The museum has an extensive collection of archeological and ethnological artifacts, including the Neolithic Goddess on the Throne terracotta figure. The museum used to have a rich collection of prehistoric objects uncovered in Kosovo. These were all sent to Belgrade just before the war started in 1998, and hundreds of archeological finds and ethnographic items yet have to be returned. If you drive about 40 minutes out of Pristina, you can experience the natural beauty of the Marble Cave, including its stalactites. Fun outdoor activities like trekking, zip lining, and cycling are available at Rugova Canyon. Prevalla is a mountain resort where many people enjoy breakfasting on the terrace while gazing at the natural scenery.
(Mo) There are so many places I’d like to visit.
(Me) Kosovo also has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of which is the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo with four Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries. We also have many other rich historical, cultural, and heritage objects that we hope to have inscribed on the World Heritage List.
(Mo) What is business like in Kosovo?
(Me) In recent years, Kosovo has consistently been ranked quite high on the list of countries with the friendliest policies that are suitable for doing business. The World Bank also ranks Kosovo as one of the countries that has made major and rapid reforms to attract foreign businesses. Kosovo has a young and educated population. Services in the IT sector have increased in recent years, also we have a very suitable climate and nature that provide very rich land for agricultural products. We intend to attract Japanese companies to open their production lines in Kosovo. With a population of about 1.9 million, it’s true that Kosovo is a much smaller market than Japan. However, geographically we are in the center of the Balkan Peninsula, which is right in the middle of Southern Europe. We have a bilateral agreement with the European Union (EU) for tax incentives on products made in Kosovo that are imported to the EU. In other words, we can send products from Kosovo into the EU market of 500 million people with better terms than exporting them from Japan. I think this is extremely appealing to companies.
(Mo) That does sound like a positive aspect of expanding into Kosovo.
(Me) One successful example is Hirano Mushroom LLC, an innovative factory with the most advanced technologies, which was established in 2013 in Mitrovica, Kosovo as a joint venture by four owners with the purpose of producing the best shiitake mushrooms. Hirano Mushroom LLC exports 100% of its production amount to Europe. I’ve met the president, who said they sell all the mushrooms they can produce. Procedures for business registration in Kosovo are very simple and fast. Regarding foreign investment there is a Foreign Investment Law, which protects foreign investors and treats them as equals to domestic investors.
(Mo) Kosovo is attracting companies with these various programs.
(Me) There are three things I want Japanese citizens to know about Kosovo. Kosovo is a safe and wonderful place worth visiting. Kosovo can also very easily become a place where Japanese businesses can expand, and from there move into Europe. The third point is that Kosovo and its citizens have much in common with Japan. Professor Yamamoto, a well-known author from Hiroshima, published a book in 2005 on the ethical structure of the Albanian customary law, comparing it with the Japanese Bushido spirit.
(Mo) Albanians mainly live in the Republic of Albania and Kosovo. I’ve heard that the Albanian ethnic group has an extraordinarily long history going back to the Illyrians who lived on the Balkan Peninsula from before the Common Era.
(Me) You are absolutely right, Motoya-sensei, Albanians have a long history dating back centuries. The best illustrations of this ancient history are dozens of castles located throughout Kosovo. Just a 20-minute drive from Pristina is the ancient city of Ulpiana that today is a well-known tourist spot.
(Mo) I went to Dubrovnik once. It was very beautiful, and we rode an inclined elevator from the beach to the hotel.
(Me) Dubrovnik is a city in southern Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. It’s close to Kosovo, about the distance between Tokyo and Osaka.
(Mo) Are there any direct flights from Japan to Kosovo?
(Me) No, we do not have direct flights from Japan to Kosovo. However, Kosovo is quite well connected with many European capitals. From Prishtina International Airport “Adem Jashari” we have daily flights to Germany, Great Britain, Vienna, Turkey, Switzerland, and many others.
(Mo) Is Pristina’s airport close to the city?
(Me) Yes, bus fare from the airport to the city center is just two euro. Of course, you can also take a taxi or rent a car.
(Mo) Japanese people don’t need visas to travel in the EU and are able to freely move around that region. What about Kosovo?
(Me) Japanese passport holders don’t need a visa. They can visit Kosovo without a visa for up to 90 days within six months with a valid travel document.
(Mo) That’s fantastic. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Me) I invite Japanese youth to include Kosovo in their future travel plans. I assure them that in Kosovo they will gain a very good experience in life and that they will have the opportunity to get to know the citizens of Kosovo. Like the young Japanese, the young people of Kosovo are full of dreams and energy for the future. I am convinced that Japanese youth will be positively surprised by the enthusiasm and positive energy of the youth of Kosovo. I want to finally share the good history of our people after the end of the war in 1999, when most of the houses were completely destroyed by the Serbian police and army. Nearly one million people returned to Kosovo within weeks of the end of the war, most of them with burnt houses and no shelter to spend the winter of 1999. At that time the Japanese government provided 10,000 temporary housing units to Kosovo. Sadako Ogata, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, was one of the most prominent voices denouncing the violence and terror that the people of Kosovo were going through under the Milosevic regime. The president of Kosovo awarded her the Mother Teresa humanitarian medal in 2016 to honor these great deeds.
(Mo) It sounds like Japan and Kosovo have many different ties. I absolutely want to travel there once the COVID-19 pandemic ends. I would also like to invite you to give a speech at the Shoheijuku academy at some point in the future. Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(Me) Thank you very much, it will be my pleasure. Once again arigato gozaimasu for this great opportunity, and it was my pleasure to talk with you today.
Mr. Arbër Mehmeti
Mr. Arbër Mehmeti, chargé d’affaires ad interim of the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo, joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo in 2013, and his connection with Japan was almost immediate. In 2014, Mehmeti visited Japan for the first time and attended the eight-month Japanese-Language Program for Foreign Service Officers and Public Officials in Osaka. He returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo and was desk officer for Japan until October 2016. In November of the same year he returned to Japan, this time to the Kosovo Embassy in Tokyo, where he continues to carry out his mission today. From March 2021, Mehmeti is chargé d’affaires ad interim of the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo. He has a degree in international relations and diplomacy and speaks Albanian, English, and basic Japanese.