By Harry Bajraktari
After 30 years as a member of the House of the Representatives, Eliot Engel will not return in his seat next year.
It is bad news for our community, for our Albanian nation, but also for his district, for New York, for the US Congress and the United States of America. He has been a champion of human rights, a great American and a distinguished legislator. As chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he was a great friend of freedom-loving people and democracy everywhere.
In his 30 years of service in US Congress, Engel was characterized first and foremost for his love for America. He also believed that a strong American leadership would make the world better and the American people safer. Throughout his career he showed support for Israel, Kosova, Albanian people, and all the people of the world that were denied a home and the right of self-determination.
His defeat in the last election is especially hard for Albanian-Americans who love him and were accustomed to reach out to him for help whenever our nation faced tough times. Yet, this should not be a moment of mourning, because in democracy all political careers are meant to end one day, but a moment in which we should celebrate and express pride for his extraordinary journey in politics and his historic help for Kosova and the Albanian nation.
Nearly 30 years ago, when Engel was just starting as a young congressman, I knocked on his office door in The Bronx, to tell him about the suffering of the people of Kosova. He was generous and welcoming to me and listened with patience and interest. It was a beginning of a great friendship between us. But, more importantly he became a friend of the Albanian community in the United States and a great advocate for freedom and democracy in the Albanian-inhabited lands in the Balkans.
In that time, few people knew about Kosova in Washington and US policy was clearly against independence. Engel was from the very beginning a strong believer in self-determination and never compromised when it came to the political status of Kosova. In that time, Kosovars were in his words, “the most oppressed people in Europe”. One of the people he worked early on with was US Senator Bob Dole, another great friend of our community and of the Albanian nation.
Congressman Engel advocated for the rights of Kosovars and he became passionate about the issue. He visited the country a few times while it was under yoke of the fascist regime of Slobodan Milosevic. In 1996, he raised the US flag in Prishtina during the opening ceremony of the USIA office, giving the people there hope and courage. He worked closely with all administrations to promote peace and freedom in the region.
In 1998, the Serbian military prevented him from entering Kosova. At the border, he called a press conference and said that Milosevic is not letting me enter Kosova today, but the day will come soon when Milosevic will be ousted from Kosova and then we will be the one preventing him from getting in.
His statement was prophetic. A year later Kosova was free and I had the honor to be in one of the first groups from the United States to visit my birthplace. I traveled with Eliot Engel, Anthony Athanas a number of good friends from NAAC. It was an emotional unforgettable journey.
Engel had advised closely President Clinton during the war in Kosova just like he lobbied President George W Bush in favor of Kosova’s independence and was among the first guests of honor in the newest country of Europe in 2008.
I’m including here only a partial a list of activities from his long cooperation with the Albanian community in the United States, but his work is much more complex and voluminous.
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.
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 2019, 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.
On the 4th of July 2019, 23 years after he opened the first American Office in Prishtina, Kosova, he was back for the inauguration of the new US Embassy complex as the guest of honor. He cut the ribbon and spoke about the great friendship between our two nations.
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.
He is above all a great human being and a great family man. He is my best friend in the world and I feel blessed to have known him and worked with him for 30 years.
I would like to thank Congressman Engel for his great contribution and dedication to the Albanian national cause. We shall be forever grateful to him. Next year, he may not be a congressman anymore, but he will remain a great Ambassador for the Albanian people.
God bless Congressman Engel! You made us proud!
Harry Bajraktari is founder and publisher of Illyria newspaper (1991-1998), an Albanian-American community leader, philanthropist and recipient of many awards, including the Honor of the Nation Order by the President of Albania, Kosova’s Presidential Medal for Merits & the White House Presidential Call to Service Award.