By Harry Bajraktari
There is a political crisis going on in Albania and Kosova is divided on a potential historic agreement with Serbia. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Albanians face challenges of various kinds. Despite all these, never before, in our modern history, have Albanians had it so good.
Only less than 30 years ago, Albania was isolated from the world under a cruel communist dictatorship. Outside its borders, the Albanian population was suffering under an oppressive dictatorship of the nationalist communist leader of Serbia and Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic. Our diaspora was eager to help, but with little hope of changing things from afar.
Today, Albania is a member of NATO, enjoys a special relationship with the United States and is applying for an EU membership. The economic situation between then and now is incomparable. Yes, there are problems of democracy and rule of law, but the society now has the tools to bring changes and reforms.
Kosova, once the most oppressed corner of Europe, is now free and independent.
Albanians, all over the Balkans, have won many rights that were denied to them historically, have their own political parties, and can rely on great friends and partners all over the world. Yes, they are still divided by borders, but are, in many ways, stronger in several countries instead of one. And, these are open borders and Albanians can easily travel, live, or work at any region of the Balkans inhabited by their co-nationals.
Historical changes of such magnitude didn’t come easily. Among the main factors is the great role that was played by the Albanian-American community and the friends and supporters that we made and found in Washington DC. And among them, there is only one American leader who has been with us. throughout this long journey, from the beginning to the end: Congressman Eliot Engel.
We had many friends from both political parties alongside him who took time to help, and who were with us in some important historic moments. I’d like to mention here US Senators Dole, D’Amato, Biden or House members Lantos, Molinari, King and the list is very long. But, only Congressman Engel was always there with us, in every step, and was instrumental in the main successes of our time.
An article is not enough to list everything Engel has done for us, but I will mention a few things to remind those who have forgotten or those who are too young of age or short on memory.
Congressman Engel is founder and recurring leader of the Albanian Issues Caucus in US Congress, the most powerful political tool we ever had in Washington DC, from the time of Noli an Konitza.
From early on, he became an open supporter of Kosova’s independence, often a lone voice in recognizing it as the only acceptable solution. He was among the first to greet Ibrahim Rugova in Washington DC, in 1991 and formed with him a life-long friendship. With his colleagues, he played a direct role in securing the first federal fund dedicated specifically for Kosova. The amount was 5 million dollars, but the value was priceless. It established officially the American engagement in Kosova.
In 1994, he chaired the first hearing, specifically dedicated to the issue of Kosova, in the House of Foreign Affairs Committee and partnered with Congressman Ben Gilman to press the Clinton Administration to more strongly support Kosova against Milosevic’s repression.
He traveled to Kosova in April 1993 and returned there again in July 1996, to inaugurate the opening of a USIA office in Kosova, popularly known the “American Office”. This was his project and it took years of lobbying and hard work.
He raised the American flag in Prishtina, in July 1996, and lifted the spirit of the people of Kosova in a time when many Albanians felt they had been left in the mercy of Milosevic after the excluding Dayton Agreement. I’ve heard Congressman Engel say many times that he considered this the first ‘US embassy’ in Kosova.
With his caucus colleagues, he pressed the Clinton Administration to condition the outer wall of sanctions on Belgrade upon the situation in Kosova. He worked hard to prevent the administration from designating the KLA as a terrorist organization, dealing a major blow to the Serbian propaganda and lobbying efforts.
The input by Congressman Engel was crucial, during in the process in which the Clinton Administration explored the alternatives to halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosova and strongly supported the military intervention in 1999. He led his colleagues in major debates and resolutions in the US Congress about the war.
After the liberation of Kosova, he joined us, in the first organized group of Albanian-Americans who entered the free but badly destroyed Kosova. We hugged and we cried as we entered the border for the first time, only a few weeks after the Serbian/Yugoslavian army had been defeated by NATO.
Since then, Engel has traveled to the Balkans almost every year and continued his work in the next decade by pressing the Bush Administration to recognize the independence of Kosova. And since independence, he has pressed country after country to recognize the young republic and to support Kosova’s bid to join international institutions, including the IMF, World Bank, FIFA, etc. He is still lobbying on our behalf with Interpol and UNESCO.
Following Kosova’s independence, he battled with another US government agency, the Millennium Challenge Program to secure the country’s right to compete for sizable amounts of assistance. In the last few years, Kosova was awarded $50 million to improve energy delivery and government transparency. And if all goes well, that number could well increase by tens of millions.
Last month, on July 4th, Congressman Engel travelled to the Balkans again. He joined the US ambassador to cut the ribbon on the inaugurated the new American Embassy in Kosova, for which the US government invested 280 million dollars. There is no greater statement of the American commitment to Kosova and permanence the region than this modern facility. In fact, the embassy has been designated a ‘green building,’ a needed example to help Prishtina advance in a more environmentally sensitive direction.
From the inauguration of July 1996 to the inauguration of July 2019, there is the same man, the same leader and friend, the same devotion and dedication to our cause. No one can compare to Congressman Engel.
Nor is his work limited to Kosova. As the founder of the Albanian Issues Caucus, he dealt immediately with problems of the nascent democracy in Albania. He helped with the establishment of the Albanian American Enterprising Fund and has worked closely with every Albanian government in the last 27 years.
He lobbied hard for Albania to become a member or NATO and was personally invited by President W. Bush for the signing ceremony in Washington DC.
He has traveled frequently to Albania, as an election observer, or in fact-finding missions, and has met with all the political leaders of the country over the years.
Engel lobbied for President Sali Berisha to be invited to the White House in 1995 as well as for US assistance to Albania during and after 1997. In the middle of the crisis in 1997, as Albania was descending into civil war, he traveled to represent the United States in the negotiations led by former Chancellor Franz Vranitzky and helped achieve the political compromise that saved Albania. He worked afterwards to guarantee that the borders and the integrity of Albania would remain untouched.
Congressman Engel has worked over the years with Albanians of Montenegro and has visited Ulqin and Tuz. He has worked with their community leaders. He has been several times to (now) North Macedonia, where he has developed important working relationships with several Albanian leaders and helped press for greater Albanian involvement in the government through implementation of the Ohrid Agreement.
In his first day, as the new chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, he met with a group of Albanian-Americans from North Macedonia and Montenegro, to discuss their views and political aspirations.
In July, on his way to Prishtina, he stopped in Presheva Valley, to meet leaders of the Albanian community in Serbia. Long overlooked and often forgotten, he asked the community to explain their concerns and expectations over about their political future.
No one, ever, in the long history of the Albanian nation, has been so deeply involved, for so long and with this rate of success.
Despite all of above, there are a few important points that need to be clarified.
This help from Congressman Engel is not something we bought with money, as some Serbian propagandists and some confused Albanians like to say.
The funds that we have raised for him are only a small part of what he has raised over the years in his district and nation-wide.
In terms of numbers or percentages, our votes have never been significant for his elections.
He was supporting us long before he became aware of the Jewish rescue in Albania. What Albanian did was beautiful and very appreciated, but it is not what has inspired his help for us.
Congressman Engel owes nothing to us and does not need to return favors. He has helped and supported Kosova’s freedom and independence, because he considers it a just cause. Over the years, he has made many friends in our community and has grown emotionally attached to Kosova and to Albanians. Now when people ask him whether he’s Albanian, he simply says: “Yes!”
But, make no mistake, Engel is not on our beck and call. We should show respect for his time and commitments. His agenda, as the new leader of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is almost full. The new position has thrusted him onto much larger issues, which require immediate attention and include among others the complicated relationship of the United States with China, Russia, and its new and continuing engagements in the Middle East and other global issues.
That in the middle of all this, he made space in the agenda for a Committee hearing focusing on the victims of war crimes in Kosova is a testament to his dedication to the same issues that we are dedicated.
However, he will not and cannot engage on every issue that we are pushing forward. Nor should we expect him to do our job for us.
It is unfortunate and disturbing to witness baseless attacks from some members of our community, for his lack of response to some initiative over Chameria.
This is not how it is done. This is not the way to treat a friend who has given so much to us. Actually, this is not the way to treat anyone in US Congress or Washington. Our job is to work hard to educate them with the historic truths and invite them to understand our national and political aspirations.
This requires time and patience. We compete for time and attention. Some current affairs will always have precedence over historic debates. Some issues are more complicated than others.
Chameria may be a very painful memory to us, but it is known very little beyond the Albanian world. Albanians themselves are divided and confused about what we want to achieve here. To make things worse, Albania itself has failed to deal with this issue. As a diaspora, we can help, but we cannot substitute Albania in the bilateral relationship with Greece. And no US Congressman or leader is going to do our job for us.
We have achieved a lot in the last 30 years, but some goals will need their own time frames. We need to be intelligent and serious. Unnecessary mudslinging against a dear friend and a great supporter looks like carelessness and ingratitude. And it may damage the very cause we are trying to elevate. And, Congressman Engel — Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Engel — is our strongest ally in Washington, DC and now that he leads the Committee, is in a powerful position to help us. Please join me in wishing him faleminderit shumë for his years of efforts on behalf of the Albanian-American community and Albanians in the Balkans.
Harry Bajraktari is an Albanian-American community leader and businessman. He is the founder of Illyria newspaper.