Ambassador Kosnett’s Remarks at the Kosovo Consulate General, New York, February 28, 2020
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Let me begin by thanking Consul General Teuta Sahatqija and her staff for hosting us today. They do a tremendous job building ties between our two great countries. It is a great pleasure to be here with old friends and new.
We are here today because we share an appreciation and respect for both Kosovo and the United States. In this spirit, I would like today’s engagement to be an open conversation. So I will try to keep my opening remarks short to allow more time for discussion. I’d like to start us off by offering my perspective on three topics: how I see Kosovo today; America’s priorities in the relationship; and, finally – how members of the Kosovo diaspora in the United States can support the effort to build a better future for all the people of Kosovo.
First, then, Kosovo today. Some of you know that I first served in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Kosovo, all too briefly, in 2003. When the opportunity arose to return to Kosovo in 2018, this time with my wife Alison, we jumped at it. We’ve been back in Kosovo a little over a year now, and it has been a wonderful experience. Last year on July 4, I was privileged to mark the 20th anniversary of our diplomatic presence in Kosovo by presiding at the opening of our new Embassy in Pristina – possibly the most advanced, most environmentally sound complex of buildings in Kosovo. The Embassy is more than a modern office for the Americans and local staff who work there. It is a meeting place for people of all communities – and a physical manifestation of America’s commitment to an enduring partnership with Kosovo.
Each year, the American people give millions of their tax dollars to support programs and activities in Kosovo. These programs build the capacity of the government, ensure the rights of minority groups and the most vulnerable members of society, enhance the capacity of the legal system, and help businesses meet international product standards and gain access to new markets. We also partner with the government on initiatives to encourage greater participation of women in the economy, support entrepreneurs from all Kosovo’s diverse communities, create a stable and secure supply of energy, and better prepare young people to be the engines of future growth. We support the development of the courts and police as well as the Kosovo Security Force.
I know how appreciative Kosovo citizens are for the assistance they’ve received from the U.S. these past two decades. But I’ve also learned that the relationship is very much a two-way street. Kosovo, for example, has shown courage and leadership in its approach to combating terrorism and confronting violent extremism, often more than much larger and richer countries.
The United States is assisting Kosovo to build the capacities of the Kosovo Security Force not just for defense, but so Kosovo can make good on its promise to begin to pay back its allies for the military assistance it has received, and to reach its aspirations of becoming a peacekeeping force and security contributor.
Recently, Kosovo has shown to the world that this security force is able to provide aid to others in need. When the tragic earthquake struck Albania, Kosovo’s emergency response corps worked hand-in-hand with our crisis response team, sending help to its neighbor within hours of the quake. I see this as an example of how Kosovo is maturing into a supportive regional partner.
It is true that our governments will not always agree on every issue. That is normal in a mature partnership. There may be times when relations between governments become strained, and there are consequences. I imagine we will get into some current topics during the discussion session. And I’ll talk a bit about how our economic assistance is set to evolve. But I have no doubt the fundamental bond between our two democracies is and will remain solid.
Let’s talk about our shared priorities. When my Embassy colleagues and I talk about America’s priorities – and our hopes – for Kosovo, we group the issues into three categories: peace, justice, and prosperity.
By peace, I mean better relations between Kosovo and its neighbors, particularly Serbia, but also peaceful, neighborly ties among ethnic communities within Kosovo. For all Kosovo’s citizens should have the right to live in freedom without fearing their neighbors – and also without fearing that if they reach out a hand of friendship to their neighbors from another community, someone from their own community will object.
And peace, by this definition, is closely related to justice.
When people in Kosovo raise the topic of justice, I find they they are usually talking about fighting corruption and building a judicial system and a police force people trust. That is vital.
But I would broaden the definition of justice to include adherence to the rule of law; equal and respectful treatment for all citizens regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; and equal opportunity for all. Supporting those efforts is important to my government and to me – and we put a lot of energy into helping to improve Kosovo’s judicial and law enforcement institutions. The results have been encouraging, but we have a long way to go, including in removing improper political influence from the judicial system.
This would be a good point to say that building a just society isn’t easy. When I speak in Kosovo, I take pains to note that as America tries to build that just society – “a more perfect union,” to borrow another phrase from our founders –we are still struggling with the legacy of a long and painful history. Both Kosovo and the United States are works in progress. We need to work together and learn from each other to build societies dedicated to inclusion, to “liberty and justice for all.” “Liberty and justice for all” also means economic opportunity for all – what our founders called “the pursuit of happiness.”
And that brings me to our third priority: supporting Kosovo on the road to prosperity. The economic picture, many of us would agree, is mixed. Too many of Kosovo’s people – in government offices, in some non-governmental organizations, and even in some corners of the private sector – have become overly reliant on foreign aid and remittances, imagining that the current high levels of assistance and remittances will last forever. Too many times someone working in government or business has pitched a sound idea to me, then asked which U.S. Government agency is going to pay for it.
Let’s be clear – we are proud of the work we do in Kosovo and the programs we support, but U.S. Government efforts are focused on ensuring Kosovo can stand on its own two feet and on having governmental institutions deliver and respond to citizens’ needs. America provides Kosovo with assistance not as a permanent subsidy, but to help institutions and sectors to become more self-sufficient.
In agriculture, for example, USAID focuses on investing in pilot projects to show farmers how to move up the value chain. Even this sort of aid isn’t designed to last forever. As USAID Administrator Green highlighted recently at the United Nations, the purpose of foreign assistance is to end the need for its existence.
There is also a fair amount of magical thinking about foreign direct investment. People who should know better ask when the U.S. Government is going to make General Motors or Ford invest in Kosovo, sidestepping the question of how to make Kosovo a country businesses want to invest in. This sort of complacency crosses political party lines and generational lines too.
As the youngest nation in Europe, Kosovo should be poised to benefit from a demographic dividend that contributes to a more prosperous future, as more and more citizens enter the work force and pay taxes that can be used to provide wide social benefits. But an estimated 220,000 citizens left Kosovo during the last decade. That is roughly 10 percent of Kosovo’s population. Without making a concerted investment in retaining and building talent, and supporting private sector led growth, Kosovo can’t expect the change needed for a positive future.
Let’s talk about remittances.
At present, remittances from people like you are holding Kosovo’s economy together. Twelve percent of Kosovo’s economy is derived from economic activity supported by money flowing in from outside. But it’s not real investment. Sadly, the vast majority of remittances are used to purchase goods manufactured abroad and imported into Kosovo. Much diaspora money goes into building vacation homes. Better, but still not the same as investing in an ongoing commercial activity. And let’s be frank – the whole remittance structure is a house of cards. America’s experience with other diaspora communities is that remittances fall sharply a generation after the initial wave of emigration.
So – Kosovo’s future is dependent on its ability to expand private sector growth and to begin to produce some of the goods it now procures from abroad with diaspora dollars. Private sector growth will create jobs. It will help keep Kosovo’s youth in Kosovo and offer real alternatives to seeking jobs in an already bloated public sector.
And all is not bleak. First of all, while many talented people have left Kosovo – including people sitting in this room – many of the most talented have chosen to remain. When I compare the Kosovo I knew in 2003 to the Kosovo of today, I am especially impressed by a rising generation of young people – educated, multilingual – who could be successful anywhere in the world but are choosing to try to build a future at home in Kosovo.
Young people in the tech sector in particular speak of learning lessons from other small countries that have achieved economic success by unleashing their private sector – countries like Israel, Singapore, Estonia, Slovenia. Many are reaching across community boundaries, even across borders, to make friends and do business with people from other communities. They are not afraid of seeking foreign money – but as investment capital, not aid.
Gjirafa is a great example. A small investment from USAID coupled with the dynamism of its young founder, Mergim Cahani, had a catalytic effect. Now Girafa is the leading online retail marketplace in Kosovo, and a leader in search as well.
It is the desire to see Kosovo develop its economy, and become more economically self-sufficient, that is driving our current effort – led by Special Presidential Envoy Ric Grenell – to inject energy into the process of improving Kosovo’s relations with Serbia. By encouraging
initiatives to improve air, road, and rail links between Kosovo and Serbia, we hope to energize the economies and business opportunities on both sides of the border, improve the free movement of people, and build connections that will lead to greater human cooperation and economic growth. We’ve developed these initiatives in consultation with business leaders in both countries.
And now I move on to my last point. Kosovo’s future relies, in the end, on one factor alone—the commitment of its citizens to build that future. I encourage you to think about how to structure your own support toward the goal of Kosovo’s self-sufficiency.
So, what else can you do? In fact, a lot. I am not here to endorse particular programs or businesses, but rather to raise awareness about the plethora of opportunities out there for you to play a role in Kosovo’s future success. So, with that caveat in mind…
You can also invest in an existing business, or even create your own. Just look at the success of a diaspora’s investment in Jaha Solar. The company not only created jobs in Kosovo but was also a smart business decision for investors. Jaha’s German-quality solar panels produced in Kosovo compete on the European market with prices that are competitive with China.
You can follow in the footsteps of the Shkreli, Lukaj, and other families by sponsoring a scholarship for Kosovo’s youth. You can support Kosovo non-profits, such as Teach for Kosovo – modeled after Teach for America – which is looking for funding, but also for fellows to work in Kosovo’s schools. You can follow the example of BONEVET’s founder Vllaznim Xhiha, who built his fortune abroad but established a foundation with programs run by local youth, encouraging the success of Kosovo’s future generations.
Perhaps a more modest commitment? Many diaspora members take extended vacations in Kosovo (and truth be told, at neighboring beaches). Take some time from your vacation to mentor local businesses and organizations and provide them with expertise and innovative ideas. One good place to start if you are looking for such opportunities is Germin, which puts diaspora around the world in touch with local businesses and organizations looking for services. Sharing your knowledge and know-how can be priceless for a Kosovo business. A small tech startup run by Kosovo youth won a contract with Lufthansa through contacts of a diaspora. In fact, they report that 90 percent of their clients come from diaspora.
And your influence does not have to be constrained to charity or the economic sphere. There are examples of how people like you who have spent time in other political and economic systems “send” back a component of these values when they return to or interact with their countries of origin and have a positive impact. They contribute to changing outdated attitudes about issues such as gender equality, protection of civil rights, and inclusion of the LGBTI community.
Over time, as diasporas share new perspectives with those who remain in the country of origin, subtle shifts in the values those people hold may occur. I encourage you to help advocate for the needs of wartime sexual violence survivors and other victims of violence and past trauma, including by helping to fill the gaps in mental health needs.
I spoke earlier about how the energy and commitment of Kosovo’s young entrepreneurs, and of the inspiring “Teach for Kosovo” project. How about unleashing the youth of the diaspora to backstop them? Know a young Kosovo-American citizen with a business or tech degree, or just a winning attitude? Maybe a daughter, son, niece, nephew?
If you have the means, why not subsidize one to take a year off to live in Kosovo and bring their education and their enthusiasm to support a local company, or municipality, or educational institution? They will gain valuable experience in the process and give their language skills a workout.
In this room there are people who would do a brilliant job of organizing a corps of diaspora youth like that – who wants to volunteer?
Thank you for listening to my ideas about how we can help build a self-sufficient Kosovo. Now I look forward to hearing your ideas, and I am happy to take questions on any topic. Thank you for your attention.