The Republic of Kosovo has already completely recovered from war against the occupation of Serbia, when more than 70% of its infrastructure was destroyed. Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 and is working to become a member of the European Union. Toshio Motoya spoke with His Excellency Mr. Sabri Kicmari, who has been ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo since March, about topics including the country of Kosovo, the causes of the war 23 years ago, and his nation’s future visions.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I understand you became the new Kosovan ambassador in January.
(K) Thank you for inviting me. Yes, I arrived in Japan and presented a true copy of my credentials to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January. The ceremony to present my credentials to His Majesty the Emperor was on March 7, the official start date of my new post.
(M) Is that so? I’ve heard ambassadors can choose between a state carriage and car for their trip from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace. Which did you choose?
(K) Unfortunately, they only use cars today. State carriages aren’t available during the COVID-19 pandemic because they draw lots of spectators along the road.
(M) That’s too bad. I invited you here to share information about Kosovo, which Japanese people don’t know much about. It’s a new country, is that right?
(K) Thank you. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe, having declared independence on February 17, 2008, 14 years ago. The population is roughly 1.9 million people. Along with Greece, it is one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe. Japan was one of the first Asian countries to recognize the Republic of Kosovo on March 18, just one month after our independence. All Kosovans are very grateful for that fast response and for the continued support from Japan. Our population is also young with an average age between 20 and 35. Over 90% are Albanians, who are said to be the descendants of the Illyrians who lived on the Balkan Peninsula from before the Common Era. After a long and complex history, Kosovo became part of Yugoslavia in the early 20th century.
(M) The Kosovo War lasted from 1998 to 1999. Was it a war of independence?
(K) Yes, it was. Yugoslavia was a one-party republic comprised of eight different federal units, with many different ethnic groups, during the era of President Josip Broz Tito. When the federal structure crumbled it broke into seven countries, including Kosovo. Kosovo quickly began advocating for independence, equal rights, freedom of speech, freedom to use our mother tongue, and the right to education and work. However, the Serbian regime headed by former President Slobodan Milosevic (president of the former Yugoslavia) did not agree and attacked Kosovo. That was the start of the war 23 years ago in Kosovo, similar to how Russia is attacking Ukraine today. Thirteen thousand innocent people were murdered during the war in Kosovo by the Serbian military and police, most of whom were women, children, and the elderly. More than 70 percent of Kosovo’s infrastructure was destroyed by that war. This bloody war with great human losses for Kosovo ended in June 1999 and recovery took place at a fast pace afterwards, followed by independence in 2008. Milosevic was a politician who believed in the Greater Serbia ideology and wanted to bring all of Yugoslavia into Serbia. He was rather like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Milosevic’s way of thinking led to Serbia’s war with Kosovo. During the seven-year period from 1991 to 1998, he actually attacked four countries that were striving for independence: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. These tragedies resulted in nothing but injuries and deaths, and were caused by Milosevic’s Greater Serbia delusion.
(M) Should we interpret those conflicts as wars of independence in countries that used to make up the republic, rather than as religious conflicts?
(K) They had absolutely nothing to do with religion. It’s true that these ethnic groups have different religions – for example, Serbians are members of the Orthodox Church, Slovenians are Catholic, and the majority of Kosovans are Muslim – but that wasn’t the motive behind the wars. The conflicts stemmed from the desire to build a nation based on Greater Serbia, an ideology that says all areas where Serbians have lived in the past or present belong to Serbia, no matter how few their numbers.
(M) So Kosovo is a Muslim country.
(K) While most Albanians are adherents of Islam, Kosovo is a secular country with separation of religion and state. Serbians in Kosovo are part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and there are Catholics as well. This poses no problems at all. Islam in Kosovo is very moderate and the society is very pro-western.
(M) What are the official languages?
(K) Albanian, Serbian, and English. Kosovo invests a lot in education because the average age is so low, which is why many young people can speak English. Kosovans have a strong awareness that our country is part of Europe, and we have started the procedures to join the European Union (EU). These are quite complex and based on standards such as social stability. Kosovo must transfer the EU legal structure into domestic law in 35 different fields. I am hopeful that Kosovo will become a member of the EU in the near future.
(M) What is the most difficult requirement?
(K) We have to maintain good relationships with all neighboring countries including Serbia, which does not recognize the Republic of Kosovo.
(M) I understand that Islam is the most widespread religion. Are there any efforts to enforce a single religion in the Republic of Kosovo?
(K) No, we have no national religion. You can freely believe in whatever faith you want, whether it is Islam, the Orthodox Church, or Catholicism. The father of Mother Teresa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, was an Albanian from Kosovo. Her mother was Albanian too, and Mother Teresa herself was born in Skopje (currently North Macedonia). She became a Catholic nun and did great humanitarian work.
(M) What are Kosovo’s principal industries?
(K) Our main industry is mining, which has a long tradition going back to the Middle Ages. We produce iron, nickel, lead, silver, tin, and coal. However, the war destroyed Kosovo’s infrastructure, and many mines were rendered non-operational due to flooding and other causes. We are currently seeking investors across the world to provide the huge amounts of money required to restart these mines. We are working to develop energy sources besides coal along with the global trend of carbon-neutral industry. Kosovo’s active agricultural industry includes wheat, onions, rye, barley, oats, sugar beets, potatoes, green beans, tobacco, and hemp. We also grow many grapes, and have large wineries that produce a lot of wine.
(M) You just came to Japan. Is there anywhere you would like to visit?
(K) I plan to go to Osaka in May. Kosovo is participating in Expo 2025 Osaka, Kansai, and I want to go there and encourage many Japanese companies to invest in Kosovo.
(M) I’ve heard the goal is for 150 countries and 25 international organizations to take part in Expo 2025. As of January, these numbers are just 72 and six, respectively. I’m glad Kosovo has already pledged to participate, and am looking forward to the Expo.
(K) Yes, it should be a great event. Kosovo’s population isn’t very big and it might appear to be a small market, but it’s actually a fantastic location right in the center of southern Europe. There are also tax benefits when exporting Kosovo-made goods to EU countries thanks to our two-way agreement with the EU. Companies with a production base in Kosovo can market their products to the 500 million people of the EU. There is also an increasing number of IT services due to our many young and highly educated human resources. I hope many Japanese companies will consider expanding into Kosovo.
(M) I imagine Kosovo is also focusing on tourism. What sightseeing spots do you recommend?
(K) If you like skiing, you should go to the superb Brezovica ski resort near the border with North Macedonia. It has comfortable hotels and great slopes. The complex geographical features of Kosovo create a natural world where you can have fun skiing in the winter and going on nature tours in the summer. There are outdoor activities at Rugova Canyon like trekking, zip lining, and cycling. Prevalla is a mountain resort where you can enjoy breakfasting on the terrace while gazing at the natural scenery. If you drive about 40 minutes from the capital city of Pristina, you can experience the natural beauty of the Marble Cave, including its stalactites.
(M) I don’t ski very much, but it sounds like some beautiful scenery.
(K) I recommend Prizren, the largest city in southern Kosovo, if you’re interested in history. It goes back to the Roman era, and there are records showing that it used to be called “Theranda.” Prizren was ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire afterwards and then became a territory of the Ottoman Empire. The city still has many churches, including Kosovo Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as the Sinan Pasha Mosque and many other mosques. The monument of the Liga of Prizren testifies to the history of Albanian efforts for freedom. Prizren Fortress, atop a small hill about 10 minutes by foot from the city center, offers panoramic views of Prizren and its red-brick roofs.
(M) Are there any other tourist attractions to visit in Kosovo?
(K) Yes. There is also an orchard area where you can sample fine-quality wine in Rahovec, and you can swim in Batlava Lake on summer days.
(M) I’ve heard there are many things to see in Pristina.
(K) That’s right. You can learn a lot about Kosovo’s history and culture at the National Museum of Kosovo. There are many religious buildings like the Cathedral of Mother Teresa and mosques. The National Library of Kosovo is a striking modern building that was opened in 1982.
(M) I’d love to visit. How do you get to Kosovo from Japan?
(K) There aren’t any direct flights from Japan. To arrive at Pristina International Airport you have to transfer in Germany, England, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, or another major European city. Japanese passport holders can enter Kosovo for sightseeing without a visa.
(M) I definitely want to go when the COVID-19 pandemic calms down a bit. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(K) I haven’t lived in Japan for very long, but I feel like we share many things in common. Both Kosovo and Japan have societies founded on communities, and I hope young Japanese people will come to Kosovo to experience this. I also wish for them to see the people of Kosovo, who are the youngest in Europe and are filled with hope for the future. I visited the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) in February to talk about giving lectures to the students and other topics. I asked TUFS to promote the Albanian language in Japan. I hope young Japanese people will study abroad in Kosovo, and that young Kosovans will study in Japan to encourage more lively communication between the youth of both nations.
(M) Thank you for teaching us about Kosovo today.
(K) Thank you for having me.
Assistant Professor Dr. Sabri Kicmari, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo
After graduating from Ruhr University in Germany, Kicmari received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Friedrich Wilhelm University in Germany. He worked as a freelance journalist in Germany, then as a media analyst at the Media Institute and as a lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Pristina in Kosovo. He served as ambassador to Austria, ambassador to Australia, and deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After that, he worked as director general of the Diplomatic Academy, and arrived in Japan as the ambassador in January 2022. He handed over his credentials to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan on March 7, 2022.